Therapy dog Stella brings smiles to kids at St. Christopher’s Hospital

    Stella is getting ready for her big day. As Joanne Dhody brushes Stella’s teeth, a pink tongue searches for a random smear of beef-flavored toothpaste. Stella is Dhody’s 13-year-old Jack Russell terrier, a registered therapy dog. The two have visited St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children every week for the past 9 years.

    “There isn’t a staff member or doctor at St. Chris who doesn’t know Stella,” says Dhody, as she packs her 16 lb. companion into the back seat of her Honda CR-V. Stella’s hind legs are shaking in anticipation of the weekly field trip. She knows where they’re headed as soon as Dhody attaches Stella’s plastic photo ID to her dog collar.

    As soon as Dhody and Stella arrive at the hospital’s visitors’ desk, the receptionist gives them an enthusiastic greeting. “Stella!”

    Heads turn and in minutes the dog is surrounded by fans petting her short-haired coat, which smells faintly of baby shampoo.

    Dhody takes the elevator down to the volunteers’ office to retrieve the shopping cart stored there. The staff in maintenance made a special sign, identifying it as Stella’s.

    Dressed to heal

    Dhody has made several custom outfits for Stella, all designed to delight the patients she encounters. A Roy Halladay t-shirt for Phillies season, rabbit ears for Easter, a red, spangly dress for Valentine’s Day, a “Great Pumpkin” costume for Halloween. She carries a packet of photos she’s taken of Stella in seasonal garb and distributes them to patients as she makes her rounds. Today visitors stop and point at the blue embroidery on Stella’s onesie, which looks remarkably like the gowns pediatric patients wear.

    Nurse Marianne spots the two coming off the elevator onto 4 West. “We love seeing Stella,” she says. “The kids love seeing her. The nurses and doctors do, too. She’s such a joy, brings smiles to all the kids’ faces.”

    Jack, a medical student from Drexel, looks up from a chart as Joanne wheels Stella down the hall. He’s not yet met this canine staff member. “She’s adorable!” he says, laying down the chart and stroking Stella’s fur. “I could do this all day, just play with this puppy.”

    The sound of the cart’s metal wheels on the waxed floors blends with the beeping machines and the periodic pages that punctuate morning rounds. And then there is Dhody, the perpetual performer, greeting patients. “Hey, how you doin’?” she calls out to a young man standing in the entrance to his room. He looks slightly perplexed.

    “This is Stella,” Joanne continues. “She visits the hospital and makes people smile. See? Didn’t I see you smile? It works!” She moves on down the hall.

    A child in a room by herself reaches her hand out for a photo of Stella in her Valentine’s costume. Dhody asks her how she plans to dress for Halloween this year.

    “A princess,” a small voice answers.

    “Stella is going to be a princess, too!” exclaims Dhody. “I built a castle for her shopping cart.”

    The child’s eyes widen.

    Puppy love

    Ben Broxterman, the manager of Child Life Services at St. Chris, learned about Dhody when he joined the staff last September. “She has quite a reputation here,” he says. “Kids light up when they see Stella – something that’s hard to find in a hospital setting.”

    Broxterman explained that the role of Child Life is to normalize the hospital experience. “Interacting with a pet sometimes opens a door,” he says. “Kids can relate to a pet. I’ve seen patients who were refusing to get out of bed leave their room to play with a dog.”

    Dhody told a story of how one young cancer patient refused to exercise for the staff but was happy to walk Stella. “So there we went down the hall, the boy holding Stella’s leash in one hand, his IV pole in the other.”

    “When I run across a child like this,” she says, “I always want to be able to help.”

    “Joanne is so energetic, so optimistic”, said Broxterman. “I think it’s contagious.”

    This is one case where “contagion” in a hospital setting is a good thing.

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