Lucy hasn’t earned a medical degree, and you’ll never see her wearing a stethoscope. But to Kyerstin Sharpless, Lucy is a key member of her care team – wet nose, black fur coat and all.
Lucy the chocolate Labrador retriever service dog stayed recently with Sharpless at Novant Health Kernersville Medical Center where Sharpless, 41, had gall bladder surgery. Sharpless relies on Lucy to detect seizures connected with her Type 2 diabetes.
Sharpless has a healthcare background as well, having worked as a nurse before she began training service dogs professionally. Sharpless’ roster of trained dogs includes her own dog, Lucy.
“To be able to bring her into the hospital is amazing,” Sharpless said. “She lets me know when my blood sugar gets too low or too high. Having her makes it a lot easier to avoid bad situations. Having Lucy allows me to drive, allows me to be by myself and be more independent.”
There are now approximately 500,000 service dogs helping others in the U.S., according to one government site, and as the population ages, the number will likely grow.
David Beasley, the director of nursing at Kernersville Medical Center said he’s seen the use of service dogs increase considerably over the years. “We take a lot of pride in helping patients navigate their illness combined with integrating their service animal into their care,” Beasley said. “While we have some policies to abide by, we interact with patients and their service dogs with the same kindness and compassion as with our other guests.”
What separates some animals from the pack?
While service animals aren’t an everyday event at most hospitals, they aren’t uncommon.
Service dogs like Lucy, which are highly trained and certified for performing a specific medical task for a patient, are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and generally must be allowed in hospital rooms with the patient they serve.
However, it’s important to know there are some key distinctions between service dogs, therapy dogs and pets.
The next category of dogs, also highly trained and medically important in their own way, are therapy dogs. Their presence often lift spirits for many people and do so in a way that works well in complex hospital environments. In fact, therapy dogs that serve at Novant Health are actually in the computer system and have their own badges.
Therapy dogs have been a huge success at Novant Health hospitals, according to Kris Wright, Novant Health’s director of patient relations. In fact, she said her team would love to have more therapy dog volunteers across the system so they can greet more patients who would like an uplifting visit.
The third category, pets, are sometimes allowed at the hospital in cases that can include end-of-life care and some other long-term hospital stays, depending on the situation. In those cases, the visit would have to be approved by the patient’s doctor. Novant Health, like other health care facilities, doesn’t make use of a separate category for “emotional support” animals but in some situations those animals might qualify to visit as pets.
Who’s a good dog?
Many are aware of the use of service dogs by patients and visitors who have vision or hearing impairments, but Sharpless’ story is a good example of service dogs being used for other reasons. Aside from seizure detection, those may include alerting individuals to the presence of allergens, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility issues and helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors, among other reasons.
At Kernersville Medical Center, Sharpless said her surgery and recovery went well and she had friendly reactions from staff members and everyone was respectful of Lucy’s role in her care, which she said has not always been the case elsewhere in the past.
Sharpless said she has raised Lucy from 13 weeks old before training her herself (though Lucy had to be tested by another professional trainer to be certified as a service dog). She said Lucy, who wears a vest identifying her as a service animal, can detect her seizures up to 90 minutes before they occur.
While patients and their families are responsible for taking care of their service animal during a patient’s stay, it’s not unusual for someone on a hospital staff to pitch in, if the situation permits. For example, since Sharpless and Lucy were by themselves for a part of the time Sharpless was recovering from surgery, a hospital volunteer took Lucy outside as needed.
“I think what usually happens is on every unit you have dog lovers, so you have someone who wants to help,” Wright said. “Someone will be like, ‘I’ve got a few minutes and I can do it.’ The best thing to do is to handle it case by case.”