Like any doting mother, Angela Anderson loves to see her son smile. She hasn’t seen many since 7-year-old Dustin was diagnosed with cancer New Year’s Eve.
But for a few minutes on a cold winter morning, Dustin’s eyes light up a room and his smile returns. He is allowed a brief moment to forget about his pain, and Anderson is able to make a positive lasting memory in a time of chaos and confusion.
|Seven-year-old Dustin Anderson gives Brewster a hug during a recent trip to UAB’s Radiation Oncology department.
Brewster, a flat coat retriever, is making a visit to Dustin’s room in Radiation Oncology in the Wallace Tumor Institute. Dustin plays games with Brewster, getting him to beg and lay down for a treat. Of course, there is plenty petting and a few hugs, too.
“When he sees the dogs, he just lights up,” Anderson says of her son. “He smiles again. It gives him a chance to take his mind off the pain for a little bit, and that’s good.”
Brewster is visiting Dustin as part of the UAB’s partnership with the Birmingham-based, non-profit Hand-In-Paw organization. Hand-In-Paw’s professionally trained teams of people and their pets motivate children with disabilities to reach therapy goals, mentor at-risk youth in positive life skills, stimulate reluctant readers to improve their skills, comfort the lonely at nursing homes and ease the stress and pain of children and their families fighting chronic and terminal illnesses.
The group has partnered with UAB for several years and recently awarded the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center its 2008 Tweety Lasker Award. The annual award, funded by Birmingham oncologist James Lasker and his wife Katie, recognizes a medical facility that has demonstrated excellence in partnering with Hand-In-Paw to serve patients and clients. The award is named in memory of the Lasker’s greyhound Tweety. The Laskers commissioned prominent sculptor Brad Morton to create a bronze likeness of Tweety that is presented to the winning facility each year. In addition, the Laskers make a $10,000 gift to Hand-In-Paw to support its medical program, which it provides to area facilities, including UAB, at no charge.
Benefit is ‘immeasurable’
UAB’s Cancer Center was the first local facility to allow visits from Hand-In-Paw teams. Julie Wall, director of public relations and marketing for the Comprehensive Cancer Center, says UAB values the positive emotional and physical effects the visits have on patients.
“What Hand-In-Paw does to aid us in caring for our patients is immeasurable,” Wall says. “It’s very therapeutic from a patient’s point of view. I recently had an adult cancer patient tell me that when they see the children’s faces coming in to the hospital they look like cancer patients, but once they see the dogs they look like children. The heavy thoughts and the pain goes away for a little while and they get to be a kid again. I think that’s a powerful testimony to the value Hand-In-Paw and its volunteers provide our patients.”
Kathy Bowman, nurse manager in Radiation Oncology, says Hand-In-Paw’s presence benefits the staff, too. She says the group has grown close to the workers and dogs through the years and they consider them part of the treatment family. Ten teams rotate through the Cancer Center each week. Teams come morning and afternoon Monday through Friday.
Melanie LeMay, marketing coordinator with Hand-In-Paw, says the group treasures its relationship with UAB. “Not all medical facilities are able to provide animal-assisted therapy for their patients,” she says. “UAB has embraced that concept and understands the scientific and emotional benefits that come from it. Some of our volunteers specifically ask to go to UAB. They have developed relationships with patients and staff, particularly in the oncology unit.”
Nena Moon and her miniature Schnauzer Ellie are one Hand-In-Paw therapy team well known at the Cancer Center. They were recently named a national finalist for the Beyond Limits Award sponsored by the Delta Society, an international association for training and promoting animal-assisted therapy. Like all Hand-In-Paw therapy teams, Nena and Ellie went through extensive training and are re-evaluated regularly to maintain registration with the Delta Society.
‘Caring spirit fostered’
Louise Abroms and Patsi Stafford have brought Brewster in to visit Dustin on this day. They, too, are regular UAB visitors. Abroms brings Brewster once a week, taking him to visit patients and handing out trading cards of her and Brewster to the patients — cards that every patient wants to collect from Hand-In-Paw volunteers.
“We love and appreciate the opportunity UAB provides us to do our small part to try and help these families,” Abroms says.
The caring spirit fostered by UAB’s staff is evident when Anderson talks about her experiences through this first month of diagnosis and treatment. The shock of the diagnosis has long passed. Now, she says, it’s about praying, fighting and hoping. Anderson says UAB is giving her the resources to make all of those things possible.
“I can’t say enough about the people here at UAB, at Children’s Hospital and with Hand-In-Paw,” Anderson says. “It’s just been amazing the amount of help and support we’ve received. We will be forever thankful.”
Visit www.ccc.uab.edu for more on the Comprehensive Cancer Center and www.handinpaw.org to learn more on Hand-In-Paw. You can also read more on Dustin Anderson at www.caringbridge.org/visit/dustinanderson.