Somewhere in the Intensive Care Unit at Mount Carmel Grove City in Grove City, Ohio, Morgan Sheehan and Holly Riegel were standing by a bed one final morning, helping the patient in front of them be intubated one last time before the person FaceTimed with the family and lose the ability to communicate, at least for the time being.
It was a moment that repeats itself over and over again in these days of COVID, one that never gets easier.
But as soon as ICU coordinator Sheehan and Riegel, a multi-talented patient technician, left the room, they went straight into a break room to see Gracie, a 70-pound Labradoodle, making her rounds to visit the exhausted and emotionally wrecked hospital staff a few times a week.
Sheehan got on her knees that morning last week and buried her face in Gracie’s black and white floof.
“There’s my girl,” Sheehan cooed as she rubbed the dog’s floppy ears. “She’s the best girl. Gracie always seems to show up on the toughest of days.”
Watching closely was Denise Minor, vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer for the Mount Carmel Health System. She is also Gracie’s human.
Minor decided more than a year ago to have her dog trained as a therapy/comfort dog. With the COVID protocols and restrictions on pets in various places, it took longer than expected, but she didn’t give up. That was her personal.
Four years ago in February, she and her siblings lost their father to suicide. In her ensuing grief, she saw her sister, Anita Rogers, make a difference with her own golden doodle, Charlie, a trained therapy dog that Rogers uses for her work as a school counselor in Ross County.
So when Gracie graduated and the pandemic picked up again this fall, Minor knew what to do.
She takes Gracie – whose own hospital administration card lists her as “Chief Therapy Officer” – to work a few times a week. Most of the time the dog is lounging around in the office. But for about an hour each day, she makes the rounds, stopping by the nurses’ stations for pets, squeezing and getting treats, and giving unconditional love.
The few minutes of comfort became even more critical last month when Ohio hospitals recorded their highest COVID patient counts since the pandemic began.
“It was such an emotional drain because every patient is so sick,” Minor said.
Sheehan said it might be difficult for others to understand how just a few minutes with a pet could counteract the chaos of an intensive care unit during the pandemic. But she and Riegel don’t need convincing. Her proof comes on days like a morning not long ago when Minor brought Gracie over after two patients had already died, and it wasn’t even 9:30 a.m. yet
“For just a second, nothing else mattered. For just a second we had to decompress and regroup,” Sheehan said, emotional as he just recounted the memory. “And then we said, ‘Now let’s get back to work.'”