Meet Sheri Leavitt, a training instructor with the Laboratory Biosafety Training Program in the Galveston National Laboratory at UTMB, and her four-legged friend, Remus (a 6-year old border collie). Together, they volunteer at UTMB to provide animal assisted therapy (AAT) for patients in the Children’s Hospital, the Acute Care for the Elderly (ACE) unit, the NASA sleep study program and local nursing homes.
Leavitt and Remus were certified through Pet Partners, a nonprofit organization that brings individuals together who share a common passion: a love of animals and people. The certification includes a full-day training course with basic obedience, followed by a separate temperament test to evaluate how the dog behaves in different situations. Once the team has passed the course, they are ready to offer their services at places like UTMB.
Leavitt began volunteering at UTMB six years before Hurricane Ike with her first AAT partner, Gideon, who was also a border collie. In 2013, she returned to UTMB with Remus. A typical visit to UTMB for Leavitt and Remus lasts about two hours. They begin in the Children’s Hospital and always ask the family and patient if they would like to have a visit. The patient can pet, brush and play ball with Remus. Leavitt is always present during the visit to ensure Remus and the patients “play well together,” and she answers all the questions the patient and their family may have.
From the Children’s Hospital, the duo visits the ACE unit, where most of the patients simply enjoy petting Remus. When they visit the NASA sleep study program, the subjects are only able to pet Remus, since they must stay in their beds. The team knows these patients are relieved to have something different to look at during their 60- to 120-day study.
Leavitt says two visits have been especially significant. The first occurred when she and Gideon were visiting a little girl in the Children’s Hospital. Leavitt and the nurse asked the patient's parents if she could be visited by Gideon, and they agreed. As it turned out, the patient had recently been attacked by a dog. Leavitt and the family weren’t sure how she would react, but as soon as Gideon entered the room, the little girl got up, hugged Gideon and began talking to him. Her parents said that had been the most excited they had seen her since her attack.
The second occasion occurred during a visit to the ACE unit. Leavitt was with Remus that day visiting an elderly woman who was unable to sit up in bed. A sheet was placed on the bed so Remus could sit beside her. Once Remus was on the bed, he promptly fell asleep. The woman smiled and told Leavitt how Remus reminded her of her dog. The woman’s daughter told Leavitt that her mother had been in quite a bit of pain, and this was the first time she had seen her smile since being admitted.
Leavitt and Remus enjoy volunteering because of the positive impact that animal-assisted therapy has on the patients’ experiences. Leavitt says she feels greatly rewarded that she can share the company of her wonderful dog, Remus, with others.
Look for the pair on the third Friday of each month — they’ll be walking the halls at UTMB and spreading a little joy.
For more information on Pet Partners, visit www.petpartners.org.