By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, firstname.lastname@example.org
Riley Hospital for Children’s most popular guests have returned to the hospital, ready to snuggle up to sick kids and weary staff.
Pet therapy was put on “paws” 20 months ago when the COVID-19 pandemic forced Riley to restrict access for the safety of patients.
But those fluffy fur buddies have finally begun to return, much to the delight of kids, parents and team members.
Last week saw the return of Maddie and Panda, two pups who are opposite in size but identical in their love for children.
Maddie is an 8-year-old Coton de Tulear, her white coat as soft as cotton (“coton” in French). Her human is Jane Bultman, a former Riley kid herself.
Both are tickled to be back in the children’s hospital after a long period of waiting.
“We onboarded just before COVID,” Bultman said.
In fact, they had just one visit under their belt before the shutdown. Today’s visit is their second since the doors reopened to four-legged friends.
“Maddie is so excited to be here. She knows we’re at Riley when we come into the parking garage.”
Maddie, who weighs about 12 pounds, started training with Pet Partners to be a therapy dog at 6 months. Every two years, she gets re-evaluated.
“I thought it was a great full-circle way to give back,” Bultman said about bringing her pup to Riley. “I love sharing my dog with people, and the kids just light up. For parents, I feel it’s a nice diversion, it brings out something joyful.”
Kim Ziegler, Riley pet therapy coordinator, is thrilled to let the dogs back in.
“It was a struggle,” she said of COVID. “Everything changed. This helps bring a little normalcy back.”
There are about a dozen therapy dogs who visit Riley. They take turns, generally coming once or twice a month for a couple of hours at a time.
Just the sight of them padding through the hallways of a unit makes people smile, and that alone is worth it. Though team members are not supposed to pet the dogs in the hallway, they have a chance after the pups visit patients to get some snuggles in a conference room.
Ava Leal is excited to see Maddie come through the door of her room on the ninth floor.
“Hi Maddie,” Ava says, grinning as the little dog settles into a spot on top of a cloth on Ava’s bed.
“She’s sniffing me. I love her,” Ava says, watching as Maddie does a trick near the bed. “That’s a good girl.”
Maddie and her therapy dog peers are social animals, so not being able to visit for so long during COVID was really hard, Bultman said.
All that is forgotten now as Maddie enjoys the attention of people big and small at the hospital.
The next day is Panda’s chance to greet fans. The 165-pound Newfoundland is named for her black and white coloring, and you can’t miss her rounding a corner.
In fact, it’s a parade led by Ziegler, pulling a Riley wagon packed with cloths, sanitizer and cards featuring the dog of the day. Behind Ziegler is 5-year-old Panda wearing a Thanksgiving headband and waddling beside her human, Vicki Reiskamp. Team members stop to smile and greet the affable Newfie.
“That just made my day,” one nurse said.
Like plenty of people who were in quarantine in the early days of the pandemic, Panda put on some COVID weight, Reiskamp said, so being out and about again is good for her health and her disposition.
Nothing pleases the big pup more than a good belly rub, and she’ll give you a high five in exchange for a treat.
Her first stop this day is to see little Knox Van Ruler, whose mom remembers Panda and Reiskamp from a previous visit.
“We have Panda’s card on our refrigerator,” she said, as her little redhead reached out to stroke Panda’s soft fur coat.
During COVID, the family celebrated Knox’ second birthday with a puppy dog parade. Friends, family and neighbors drove by their house with their dogs waving from the car windows.
After a couple of other patient visits, Panda stops in a conference room, where she is the main attraction before a team huddle.
It seems everyone needs a little puppy love.
Photos by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, email@example.com