Facility dog program expands to adult palliative care team

GREENVILLE, S.C. – Comfort for the most seriously ill patients will now be delivered with four paws. A new facility dog dedicated to the adult palliative care team at Prisma Health Greenville Memorial Hospital began her first week of work this week, bringing joy to patients and their families.

The new team member, a Golden Retriever named Bunny, is the first member of the Canine F.E.T.C.H. (Friends Encouraging Therapeutic Coping and Healing) Unit to serve adult patients. She joins teammates Kalle, Kenzie, King and Vivitar, who all work in pediatric settings.

Bunny’s calming presence and ability to bring a smile to a patient’s face is the perfect complement to the work of the adult palliative care team, said Katie Wittwer, MD, palliative care physician and one of Bunny’s handlers. The goal of palliative care is to improve quality of life for patients coping with serious illness by providing education, symptom management and emotional and spiritual support. Palliative care is a resource for patients and families at any stage of illness, from initial diagnosis to end-of-life.

“One of the surest ways to lift a patient’s spirits in the midst of a difficult diagnosis is to have a dog visit and provide that unconditional love and support,” said Wittwer. “Bunny will be a wonderful asset to help us reduce stress and provide comfort during what can be a challenging time for a patient and their family.”

The importance of elements such as play and laughter in the healing process are well-known to patient Brynn Duncan. Duncan, who suffers from chronic illness, has frequented Prisma Health Children’s Hospital–Upstate for treatment since childhood. When she turned 18 and transferred into an adult unit, she found it difficult to transition away from the many support services within the children’s hospital.

“In the children’s hospital, they incorporate so many elements to make it feel like you’re not in a medical setting, from the Child Life staff and special guest visitors to facility dogs,” said Duncan. “The adult environment is more clinical, but there are still patients in need of some built-in comforts. We hope Bunny provides those comforts.”

Duncan was inspired to advocate for an adult facility dog by the memory of her friend Betsy Eye. Eye was also a patient at Prisma Health Children’s Hospital–Upstate, and was the first patient to be treated by the supportive care team, the pediatric version of palliative care. King, a member of the Canine F.E.T.C.H. Unit, joined Prisma Health Children’s Hospital in April 2018 to honor Eye’s legacy as the facility dog serving the supportive care team. Bunny will be his companion for adult patients, just as Duncan and Eye were companions.

Before beginning service at Prisma Health–Upstate, Bunny underwent extensive training at Canine Assistants, a Georgia nonprofit that specializes in training facility dogs and other service dogs. Each dog begins training at two to three days old and learns the patience and discipline required to work in a high-touch environment for up to eight hours per day. When the dogs are ready to graduate to full hospital employment, handlers attend a one-week training session to be matched with a dog based on personality and ability.

The dogs are also named in training based on the theme of the dog’s particular litter. Bunny’s litter was aptly themed “baby animals.”

Bunny’s arrival was made possible by a generous donation from the Russian family, who worked with the Prisma Health–Upstate Office of Philanthropy after learning of the need for additional facility dogs from Beverly Eye, Betsy’s mother. As a nurse, Gina Russian understands the impact that even a simple visit with the dog will have on patients.

“For our family, being able to continue the legacy of two best friends is wonderful, but knowing that this dog can impact so many lives is an even greater gift,” said Russian. “We’re honored to help begin the next phase of this special program in the adult setting.”

With Bunny’s arrival, the Canine F.E.T.C.H. Unit becomes the largest facility dog program in South Carolina.

“We’re thrilled that our program is growing and now able to fulfill a need for adult patients, since we’ve seen so much success with this program in the children’s hospital,” said Taylor Stathes, facility canine coordinator. “Although our pediatric patients grow into adults, they may still be faced with the challenges of being hospitalized. It’s important that we continue to provide resources that help patients and families manage the stress and emotions that come with a serious illness. Our facility dogs play a key role in improving a patient’s quality of life, no matter the patient’s age.”

To support the growing Canine F.E.T.C.H. Unit, interested community members can contact the Prisma Health–Upstate Office of Philanthropy by visiting www.ghsgiving.org.

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