• Joy Memmen a ICU registered nurse has two visitors left Sweets and Pepper.

Therapy dog Sweet usually starts her day walking down the halls of Platte Valley Medical Center towards section two-west. She heads into the nurse’s stations there where a group of six nurses surrounds the pup, excited to see her.

“Sweet put her head down in one lady’s lap which she’s has never done that before. The lady had been crying and asked if she could hug Sweet and mentioned she needed loving today and had a tough day, “said Cheryl Palumbo, Sweet’s handler. “Dogs know when people need attention.”

Sweet, a slender and calm greyhound, is a working therapy dog with an organization called Paws to Heal. The therapy dogs go into the hospitals visiting patients and staff bringing comfort, joy and reducing stress. Paws to Heal started at Platte Valley Medical Center (PVMC) years ago when it first opened at its location in 2007.

Palumbo had not heard of the program so when she took Sweet in for a checkup one of the ladies at the veterinarian office, who was in the Paws to Heal group, witnessed Sweet’s interaction with people, dogs and a cat in the waiting area.

“The lady told me your dog would be perfect as a therapy dog so she told me a little about it. After six months, I took her to the trainer,” said Palumbo.

Susan Wiant with her previous lab named Avalanche also started volunteering with Paws to Heal when PVMC first opened. The organization started as two separate companies, Alliance Therapy Dogs and Pet Partners, so the organizations renamed it Paws to Heal.

“We have seven actual teams and two new teams that will be starting so we will have nine teams of dogs,” said Wiant.

During the COVID pandemic shutdown impacted the therapy dogs and handlers too not being able to come to the hospital.

“They let us back in with staff for a while and it’s been wonderful with the dogs. Slowly we are allowed on all the units with patients, but with COVID, it’s been the main concern with us, “ said Wiant.

All the therapy dogs are members of their owners’ households but go through obedient training and Canine Good Citizen training. The handlers go through training, too.

Beverly Cudsik with her dog Pepper has volunteered for six years visiting hospitals.

“Pepper did a lot of training in the beginning when she was a puppy and I took her to obedience and Canine Good Citizen classes. Then you are connected to organizations,” said Cudsik. “When you use your dog, you know what kind of personality they have. When I got my dog seven months ago, she was just so sweet and calm. I just knew she’d make a great therapy dog.”

Once the dog completes training, they are evaluated on basic skills, such as how they react to people, to noises and to different environments. After passing, the therapy dog is ready to visit organizations.

The breed of a dog does not matter, Cudzik said. The main thing is personality and if they like people or like being petted.

“It could be any dog, a big dog or small dog. Whatever you choose, you know your dog,” said Cudsik. “Sometimes the dog can be wonderful at home but don’t like people or crowds, so they are not a good therapy dog.”

Cudsik chooses where she and Pepper want to visit from hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. PVMC was her first assignment has been coming ever since.

“I go other places, but I like Platte Valley. It’s like home and family. It makes me so happy. Pepper just loves it and seeing the joy she brings to people,” said Cudsik.

“Also, we bring them to the courthouse and she calms people down,” she said. “They are all stressed out and afraid to testify. She just makes them happy and the staff too. They say ‘You just made my day.’ “

Brad Lehmann is a registered nurse and nurse educator at the hospital for 22-years and was in the emergency department.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to have known Susan Wiant since the inception and watched her wonderful family of dogs going through here, which I got very connected with,” said Lehmann.

Lehmann says with the patient-centered care model at PVMC the therapy dogs are a great addition to the hospital.

“This is phenomenal addition is very successful, in my opinion, as far as with visiting the patients,” said Lehmann. “In this day on how healthcare has gone and the stress on healthcare workers is a lot and associates as well. It’s not only for the patients, which is a huge part of it and very effective.

The hospital’s employees look forward to seeing the dogs, too.

“Everybody is just overjoyed with them and it has helped with the health and wellness of the caregivers as well,” said Lehmann. “It’s a huge asset to the entire organization. I can’t imagine not having them. They make my day every time I see him.”

Joy Memmen a registered nurse at Platte Valley and has held various positions, but spent most of her time as an ICU nurse.

During the COVID pandemic, I would describe it to people there are two worlds, there’s the world outside the hospital, and the world inside the hospital- the world inside the hospital has been like a war the last couple of years,” said Memmen. Our staff, our patients, all the caregivers have endured a lot of trauma.”

Memmen says when the staff sees the dogs it helps to heal the trauma, but when the dogs were unable to come in during the shut down the staff was devastated for the first few months. So when the therapy dogs were allowed to come to the parking lot outside, the staff scheduled time to come out to visit them.

“I seek out the dogs and know what time they come in and when they are at the bistro. I’ll go down to say hello to the dogs just to spend a few minutes with them. I’m not sure what we would have done without them, “ said Memmen.

“It is so important for mental health to have that little bit of sunshine and a little bit of animal companionship.”