Therapy dogs brighten up South Side children’s hospital with weekly visits

Meet Zilly and Ella, the newest “dog-tors” at La Rabida Children’s Hospital. The Cook County Sheriff’s Office has partnered with the hospital to bring the two therapy dogs to the Outpatient Center each week.

SHARE Therapy dogs brighten up South Side children’s hospital with weekly visits
Miel Finley, 13, a patient at La Rabida Children’s Hospital, pets therapy dog Zilly.

Miel Finley, 13, a patient at La Rabida Children’s Hospital, pets therapy dog Zilly.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Patients and staff at La Rabida Children’s Hospital on the city’s South Side are being treated by a new pair of physicians whose smiling faces and enthusiasm for their jobs is enough to brighten anyone’s day.

Ella, 3, is more of a laid back, calming presence, while Zilly, 4, is rambunctious and playful as he holds court on Tuesday mornings in the Outpatient Center of the lakeside hospital and visits with children being treated for a variety of complex issues and their families.

The charismatic duo are therapy dogs that have begun working at the hospital as part of a partnership between La Rabida and the Cook County Sheriff’s Office.

When off the clock, Ella and Zilly go home with sheriff’s officers Renee Ortega and Jerry Roman, who double as their owners. The two hope to adopt their respective pups after the therapy dogs retire.

To unwind after a hard day on the job, Roman says Zilly loves to nap and play with his ball. 

“I probably spend more time with Zilly than with my own family,” Roman said..

Xavier Dorsey, 6, reacts upon seeing therapy dog Zilly as his mother Jaquita pets Zilly and handler Jerry Roman watches before a press conference at La Rabida Children’s Hospital.

Xavier Dorsey, 6, reacts upon seeing therapy dog Zilly as his mother Jaquita (center) reaches out for a pet. Zilly’s hander, sheriff’s office Jerry Roman (left) says Xavier’s reaction is what the program is all about.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

On Tuesday, 6-year-old Xavier Dorsey stumbled across Zilly while on a trip to the hospital and immediately fell in love. Xavier and his mother stopped to pet Zilly, eliciting squeals of delight from the young boy.

When Dorsey left for his appointment, Roman said hearing Xavier’s “infectious laughter” is what the partnership is all about.

“Just seeing him light up,” Roman said. “Otherwise [patients are] just coming to a doctor’s appointment but this, this is amazing.”

Both pups came from shelters and were selected for their jobs based on their warm and welcoming personalities. The four-legged friends have been trained to comfort children, and Ella and Zilly also visited area schools following the Uvalde school shooting to offer their comfort to anxious students.

“Therapy dogs are invaluable to everyone and especially to law enforcement,” Sheriff Thomas Dart said of the partnership. “They bring comfort to victims and witnesses of crimes and help reduce anxiety in hospital patients young and old.”

The new “dog-tors” have also helped the hospital’s staff to decompress after a rough couple years working through the COVID-19 pandemic, the hospital’s CEO Brenda Wolf said.

​​“These last two and a half years have been trying times in so many different ways,” she said. “What is remarkable is when the dogs are in the building the staff will come by to stop and see them and they snuggle with them.”

Falen Kizunga, a medical assistant in the Outpatient Clinic, agreed and said she makes time to go visit Zilly and Ella.

“It’s the best part of the job,” she laughed. “I’m like ‘Wait, now I don’t have to see my therapist today!”

Mariah Rush is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.

Ella says hello to Patricia Aguilera, a patient assist coordinator at La Rabida Children’s Hospital, as her handler Renee Ortega holds her leash after a press conference at La Rabida Children’s Hospital.

Therapy dog Ella says hello to Patricia Aguilera, a patient assist coordinator at La Rabida Children’s Hospital, as her handler Renee Ortega holds her leash after a press conference at La Rabida Children’s Hospital.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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