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St. Anthony opens pet therapy room

Two Cook County Sheriff K-9s will now have a dedicated pet therapy room where they will meet with hospital patients.

Naya Opara, 8, pets K9 Zilly during a ceremony to celebrate the reintroduction of therapy dogs at Saint Anthony Hospital 2875 W 19th St in Lawndale, Monday, April 19, 2021.
Patient Naya Opara, 8, pets Zilly in St. Anthony Hospital’s new pet therapy room Monday.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Ranger and Zilly embraced Naya Opara on Monday, hopping into her wheelchair and letting her pet them.

The 8-year-old was the first patient to use St. Anthony Hospital’s pet therapy room.

Naya’s father, Gustavo Salinas, said his daughter was excited to spend time with the dogs.

When it was time for Naya to return to her room, she got out of her wheelchair and hugged each of the dogs goodbye.

The Cook County Sheriff K-9s now have their own place — Little Tony’s Paw Pals room — at St. Anthony Hospital where they will provide a vital mental health service for patients awaiting surgery.

The Cook County Sheriff’s Office and the hospital in 2019 started having dogs comfort terminally ill patients and patients with mental health issues. Then the dogs started visiting patients in their rooms or the emergency department.

The coronavirus interrupted those visits more than a year ago.

“Now that we are seeing a decline in our COVID numbers, we’re reintroducing the pets, but in a more controlled setting,” chief nursing officer Sherrie Spencer said. “Thus, we have our pet therapy room.”

“We’re dedicating the room today to the dogs and to the many patients that will [gain] value from this most needed therapy.”

From left, Chief of Strategic Operations at Cook County Sheriff’s Department Tarry Williams, K9 Ranger, Saint Anthony Hospital Mascot, Tony, K9 Zilly and Deputy Jerry Roman pose for a photo inside the new room where patients can interact with therapy dogs during a ceremony to celebrate the reintroduction of therapy dogs at Saint Anthony Hospital 2875 W 19th St in Lawndale, Monday, April 19, 2021.
Sheriff’s canines Ranger and Zilly with (from left) Chief of Strategic Operations at Cook County Sheriff’s Department Tarry Williams, St. Anthony Hospital mascot Tony, and Sheriff’s Deputy Jerry Roman.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Ranger, a 2-year-old mixed lab, and Zilly, a 3-year-old yellow lab, have been meeting with St. Anthony patients since 2019, said Tarry Williams, chief of strategic operations for the Cook County sheriff’s office.

The two dogs were adopted from Paws and Stripes College, a program run by Brevard County Sheriff’s Office in Florida that teaches people in jail to train shelter dogs. The program provided the dogs at no cost to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office.

The hospital intends to expand the program to seven dogs, taking more dogs from programs such as Tails of Redemption, a vocational training program at Cook County jail.

“The sheriff believes we want to give these people opportunities,” Williams said. “We want to service them while they are in the community, if they are unfortunately in the jail we want to service them, and we want to service them when they are back in the community.”

Ranger, left, and Zilly, wait for a news conference to begin Monday to mark the reintroduction of therapy dogs at St. Anthony Hospital.
Ranger, left, and Zilly, wait for a news conference to begin Monday to mark the reintroduction of therapy dogs at St. Anthony Hospital.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times