Liz Peters, who has been an employee of the WellStar Health System since 2003, is WellStar’s stroke program coordinator. She has helped expand a pet therapy program started at the Kennestone Hosptial in Marietta to the WellStar Cobb Hospital off Austell Road.
Last fall, Lori Campbell, who manages the volunteer services department at the Cobb Hospital, started gathering a group of stroke therapy-certified dog owners to begin making rounds to specific floors and units in January.
The three therapy dog owners are from the nonprofit Happy Tails out of Roswell, whose list of volunteers tops 300 people from around the Atlanta area.
Tiffaney Barber of Marietta leads the team with her goldendoodle named Macy Marie, who looks like a teddy bear and wears hair bows and the occasional outfit.
Barber has been with Happy Tails for 15 years, and Macy Marie is her third dog to participate in the program.
Each week for about two hours, Barber is joined by Kelly Barnes of Acworth with her Golden Retriever, Sophie, a recent graduate of the training program, and Vicky Hagan of Marietta with her Irish terrier, Tucker.
Peters, who is a specialized neuroscience nurse helping patients with brain injuries or neurological diseases, said the age of seizer patients has become younger, ranging from 45 to 65 years old. She adds Georgia has a high rate of cases.
“We are in what is considered the ‘stroke belt,’” said Peters, who added besides factors such as diet and exercise, smoking increases a person’s chance for a stroke by 50 percent, she said.
The dogs provide comfort by lying their heads on the laps of patients, bringing a sense of peace. But Peters said the “alternative therapy” is also physically rehabilitating, encouraging patients to move their heads, arms and hands to see or touch their furry friends.
This is vital rehabilitation for a patient who may have lost mobility on an entire side of the body after a stroke, Peters said.
Barber said the activities designed by Happy Tails works a patient’s speech, balance and sight abilities. Brushing the dogs and even decorating their coats with clips and bows works a patient’s fine motor skills, she said.
There are exercises where patients toss toys or walk the dogs, which Barber said gets a patient to stand twice as long as they would through traditional physical therapy.
Walking through the halls of Cobb Hospital on Thursday afternoon, staff and volunteers recount stories of families who were hesitant of the therapy at first, but then saw their loved ones open their eyes for the first time when a dog was placed in the bed.
While living in Canton, Peters saw horse therapy work with her own daughter, Kayla Jaconette, 16, who has a sensory integration disorder.
But with the therapy dogs, Peters said they can sense when a patient needs to move and be active versus when a patient needs pain eased and relaxation.
“The dog knows it,” Peters said. “I never expected that.”
Two stroke patients, who were admitted to Cobb Hospital earlier in the week, laid in bed Thursday afternoon hoping for the patter of little padded feet.
Carol Pauley of Austell, 58, said dogs have always seemed to be attracted to her, and she is guilty of spoiling many pets in her life.
“I know exactly the right spot,” Pauley said as she massaged Macy Marie’s thick, curly golden fur, while Peters reminded the patient to use her left hand. Without even seeming to notice, Pauley then used her left hand to entice her new friend with a dog treat.
Pauley said Happy Tails is a great program, especially for patients whose family members work and cannot be at the hospital for long hours.
“She is just a baby. She is precious,” Pauley said about Macy Marie. “I don’t see how anybody would have trouble getting to know her.”
As soon as the three dogs entered the room of Joyce Farmer of Austell, another stroke patient, she began patting the bed saying, “Come here, Tucker.”
Before the visits from the therapy dogs, Farmer, 66, was not able to sit up, but with the rush of excitement Thursday afternoon, she stayed upright, making sure each dog was given attention.
Farmer said she thought she had won a prize when the hospital staff said her room would be visited by the dogs, whom Farmer credits with bringing her back to life.
“It draws my mind when I have something to love,” Farmer said.
From the moment Farmer began petting the dogs, the hospital room filled with her laughter.
Hagan said it is the success stories and joyous laughter shared with patients that fills her spirit.
“They say volunteer jobs are not paying, but we are paid handsomely,” Hagan said.