Marney Uptmor takes her volunteer work at Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical Center seriously.
Her mission is to bring cheer to the patients and no matter how long they have been in the hospital or how dire their health, she knows the magic trick to get the job done — laying her furry head across their laps.
Marney, an 8-year-old Australian shepherd, is one of 23 dogs in the hospital’s Pup Therapy Program, an initiative meant to address the mental wellness of patients who undergo treatment at the facility.
The dogs make one-on-one patient visits in various hospital wings, including the pediatric unit of the Women and Children’s center, the emergency room and the neighboring Baylor Scott & White Cancer Center.
“It is so rewarding to see these patients and they smile,” said JoAnn Uptmor, Marney’s owner and the coordinator of the pup therapy program.
“Every now and then we’ll have one that they don’t want to be bothered or they don’t like dogs, so we always check before we go in a room. But the ones that like dogs, they just love it. Even the staff and all the people sitting in a waiting room, they want to see the dogs.”
The hospital views the dogs and their owners as official volunteers — each pet has its own Hillcrest ID badge and hospital vest noting its status as a therapy dog.
One patient, 15-year-old Jacob Hogan, instantly lit up when Marney and a mini dachshund named Daphne entered his room Tuesday. Hogan had gone through three days of treatment for a broken femur and concussion sustained at West’s city pool.
He leaned forward and smiled as he rubbed both hands behind the dachshund’s ears, noting that his older sister has a similar dog.
Jeff Crouch was greeted by Marney and Daphne earlier this week as he recovered from open heart surgery. Crouch had been in the intensive care unit for four days and was discharged on Tuesday.
“I think this is the best thing there is,” Crouch said of the therapy dogs, adding that he has a Labrador, a dachshund and two cats at home. “People can bond with dogs. It’s just a connection, because most people love pets. It’s something that you can take and love on them, and they’ll love you back no matter what.”
Jeff’s wife, Kele, who works in a lab at Hillcrest, noted that the therapy dogs were especially beneficial when her granddaughter was hospitalized last year.
“Anybody that walked in in a white coat or scrubs, she would cry, but when the pup walked in she smiled, so it was great for her,” Kele Crouch said.
The therapy dogs must all have obedience training before they can apply for the program. Then Uptmor, who has been with the program for 13 years, does three visits with each dog to make sure they have the right temperament for a hospital setting.
“The first meeting they come and I meet them with (Marney), and if they come in snarling, growling and barking, then I’ll tell (the owner) you have to go back and re-train your dog,” Uptmor said.
“I tell them to take your dog everywhere you can, get them used to being around kids, don’t teach it to shake hands. They can’t jump on people, they have to be four feet on the floor all the time.”
The dogs also have to demonstrate that they are comfortable around hospital carts and equipment and won’t bother electrical cords connected to life-saving equipment. Uptmor said the program is open to all dog breeds, but the pets must be obedient and well-behaved around different groups of people.
Pup Therapy dogs and their owners must volunteer at least four hours per week. The dogs have to be bathed and groomed the morning prior to their hospital visits to eliminate germs brought into the facility, and the volunteers carry hand sanitizer with them for patients to use after petting the animals.
Some of the volunteers also take their dogs to other facilities.
Beverly Dickey, owner of the mini dachshund Daphne, takes the dog to the Waco Veterans Affairs Medical Center twice each week, visiting the community living centers, waiting rooms and mental health wings.
Dickey is a Gold Star mom. Her son Clint completed two tours of duty in Afghanistan and died in 2010 following complications related to his military service.
She and Daphne have accumulated more than 500 hours of service at Hillcrest alone since she started volunteering at the hospital in 2011.
“I got to thinking that I wanted to do things that Clint would have enjoyed,” Dickey said. “If he were in the hospital and I brought in a little dog in a stroller like that and she were friendly, he would love it. He would eat it up.”
Some of the “pups” in the program are more adult-sized, such as two large black poodles and a couple Labradors.
Pat Love and her German shepherd Nicki joined the therapy program this summer. Nicki is just a year old, the minimum age to participate in the program, but he is already waist-tall.
“Sometimes the little kids are afraid of him at first because he’s so big, but then they realize he’s so sweet and gentle,” Love said. “He loves kids, he always goes straight for them when we walk through.”
Michaela McCord and her 6-year-old Mi-Ki dog Halen are among the newest volunteers to join the pup therapy program. McCord works as a concierge at the hospital and witnessed how patients and visitors would respond to seeing the dogs walk around the building.
Halen is tiny, about the length of a forearm, so McCord frequently has to pick him up to allow patients to pet him.
“I love animals; animals are my passion. And I love helping people. And this seemed like the perfect way to join those two things,” McCord said.
The hospital originally began the program to aid patients in the comprehensive rehabilitation programs at the old Herring campus in 2000. But it expanded when new Hillcrest complex opened in 2009 as the hospital’s leadership recognized the benefits to both patients and their family members.
“It’s like an extension of clinical care,” said Alan Luker, marketing director for the Hillcrest campus. “It gets over into things like massage therapy, aroma therapy, music therapy. Pet therapy is a proven discipline that aids the natural healing process.”
“It’s like you can just watch these layers of stress pop off of them when the dog gets in their presence.”