U of M medical facility dog helping support patients, staff
A furry friend is now helping support patients at Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain (MIDB).
Three-year-old golden retriever-lab mix Jersey has become a familiar presence at the clinic and research center.
She works with patients alongside child life specialist Cala Hefferan.
“They’re very excited to see her,” Hefferan said.
The facility focuses on childhood brain and behavioral development so patients may have autism, anxiety or depression, or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. They support infants through young adults.
Jersey helps with the transition when patients arrive.
“They’re able to transition well, they’re able to engage in their appointment,” said Hefferan. “Really alleviate some of that stress and anxiety.”
Jersey is also trained to do medical play, which helps children understand what’s going to happen during a procedure.
“The blood pressure cuff, we’ll actually hook it up to a machine and kids can see what it’s like for Jersey to have her blood pressure taken,” Hefferan said. “And then make a coping plan for what we are going to do when they have their blood pressure taken.”
Patients are able to walk through the steps of a blood draw, going as far as putting a tourniquet on Jersey and wiping her paw with an alcohol swab. She’s also been trained to use the practice MRI machine to help alleviate patient fears.
Can Do Canines has been training Jersey since she was a puppy. Her sweet demeanor is one of the reasons she was matched with this program.
MIDB opened in 2021 as a first-of-its-kind facility in Minnesota. Researchers are working to better understand conditions like autism side by side with care teams that can apply those new discoveries.
It comes at a time when autism spectrum disorder diagnoses are increasing nationwide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 34 Minnesota children were identified with autism in 2020.
“Many children with autism, and in fact many children with diverse disabilities, they have a lot of anxiety about health care in particular,” said Ellie Wilson, the executive director of the Autism Society of Minnesota. “It’s not just about how medical care can be scary because being sick can be scary, it’s also about the unknown of being in a new place. It’s about the sights and sounds being really different and it’s just in general an environment we don’t spend a lot of time in.”
She explained there’s been growing interest in creating more sensory-friendly environments in health care.
“One of the groups that asks us most for training are clinical care providers and it’s not just big hospitals, sometimes it’s smaller outpatient clinics or private practices,” Wilson said.
Wilson noted assistance dogs can play an important role in making kids comfortable.
At MIDB, Hefferan sees Jersey’s calming demeanor is already making a difference.
“I think you can really see the benefits, not only to the patients and the families, also the staff,” said Hefferan. “People feel really welcomed when they walk in the door here and that’s something that’s pretty great to have.”