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Rush tests 4-legged healers’ ability to ease docs, nurses’ stress

Ann Davidson, from Canine Therapy Corps, speaks as a hospital employee pets Rocco at Rush University Medical Center, which has offered monthly animal-therapy sessions for over a year as an employee health and satisfaction program, using dogs from a shelter and an animal therapy group. Recently, Rush nurses launched a study to see if the program has tangible effects on employee stress and morale. Carrie Antlfinger / AP

Sick patients who delay getting treatment and insurers who balk at paying for it are among job stresses that Chicago nurse Ben Gerling faces fairly regularly.

So there was no tail-dragging when his employer offered a few four-legged workplace remedies.

Gerling and dozens of other nurses, doctors, students and staffers flocked to a spacious entrance hall at Rush University Medical Center after learning about animal-therapy sessions the hospital has organized.

Three huggable pups named Rocco, Minnie and Dallis greeted almost 100 white-coat and scrubs-clad visitors at a recent session, happily accepting cuddles, ear rubs and treats. Big grins on the human faces suggested the feelings were mutual.

Minnie, a fluffy white and gray Labradoodle mix, had “the softest fur I’d ever felt, like a little cloud,” Gerling said dreamily as he headed back to work.

Many hospitals use animal therapy for patients — Rush has even brought in miniature horses. And many workplaces allow pets on site to boost employee satisfaction.

But the West Side hospital’s year-old, monthly “Pet Pause” sessions — you could describe the program as heelers for healers — has a twist: Rush nurses have launched a study to see if the program has tangible effects on employee stress.

Research in other settings has shown benefits from interacting with animals, including lowering stress-hormone levels, blood pressure and heart rate. Early indications are that it could have similar benefits for hospital workers.

Medical assistant Eloise Olmos pets Dallis the Westie at Rush University Medical Center. Carrie Antlfinger / AP
Medical assistant Eloise Olmos pets Dallis the Westie at Rush University Medical Center. Carrie Antlfinger / AP

In the study, the human visitors get blood-pressure readings and fill out questionnaires rating their stress levels before and after the canine cuddle sessions with dogs from a shelter and an animal-therapy group.

Gerling’s results were promising.

“My blood pressure was kind of high when I came in, and it was lower when I left by about 10 points, so that was good,” he says.

Melissa Browning, a Rush nursing director involved in the study, rattles off a long list when asked about what makes hospital work so stressful: constant beeping from medical device alarms, dealing with gravely ill patients and worried families, triple checking the accuracy of patients’ medicines and doses — it can all add up, Browning says.

Loren White, a medical assistant, pets Minnie, a Labradoodle mix, at a Rush University Medical Center animal-therapy session. Carrie Antlfinger / AP
Loren White, a medical assistant, pets Minnie, a Labradoodle mix, at a Rush University Medical Center animal-therapy session. Carrie Antlfinger / AP

For Benjamin Gonzales, a graduate student in health systems management at Rush, the heavy course workload can be taxing, and the dog session is a welcome break — even if his blood pressure was a little higher afterward.

“I could feel the big sighs coming out of me when I was with the dogs, so I know that just coming to this has made my day less stressful,” Gonzales says. “This is amazing. I wish it could be every day.”

The Chicago program was inspired by the “pet a pooch” program for staffers at University of Pennsylvania’s hospital. Emergency room nurse Heather Matthew started the Penn program three years ago, bringing in dogs from animal shelters. Besides boosting morale, Matthew says there’s been an added bonus — Penn hospital workers have adopted more than a dozen of the shelter dogs.