Community Stories Health Pets

Huntsville Hospital Is Going to the Dogs

Asteroid with handler Stefani Williams, left, and her secondary handler, Brittany Ellisor.
(Photo courtesy Huntsville Hospital for Women & Children)

I first became aware of the therapeutic power of dogs in the late 1980s, when my dad was practicing psychology. He was dealing with a young lad who, after a vicious attack, was irrationally terrified of dogs. Along with the young fellow’s mom, Dad hatched a scheme to — as they say in the biz — desensitize him of the fear. 

“If we bring a funny-looking dog here, and he sits in the car where you can look at him, do you think that would be OK?” he asked. The lad answered that this seemed doable. 

The next week, I dressed up Bandit, my basset-pointer mix, in his maroon sweater-vest and sandalwood tie. I, too, donned a sweater and tie, and we took our Honda Civic wagon to the parking lot of Dad’s practice where he, the lad and his mom met us. 

The lad got up close to the window, looking at Bandit as he might a lion on safari. After a few minutes, he decided that Bandit looked sufficiently benign, and he agreed that maybe touching him would be OK.

I rolled the window down about three inches, then stuck Bandit’s tail out. The lad grasped it and rubbed it for a few minutes as if it were a being independent of the dog to which it was attached.

Minutes later, he asked to rub one of Bandit’s ears, which were definitely his best feature, and in a few more minutes he was feeding him a Milk-Bone. A week later, via Dad, he sent Bandit a new tie. And the week after that, his family adopted a miniature Schnauzer.

Dog power is no stranger to Huntsville Hospital’s patient care. For years, solid canine citizens — along with the occasional cat, mini horse or rabbit — have volunteered with their human partners. Wherever they go, Therapy Partners have brought a level of warmth and comfort unmatched by nurses, chaplains, social workers or even a smuggled-in sack of cheeseburgers.

In July, Huntsville Hospital did the volunteer services one better by hiring Asteroid, a Golden Retriever universally recognized as adorable. Having encountered the new facility dog live and in person, I can vouch for her winsomeness.

Turning from one corridor onto another, I saw two employees kneeling on the floor, seemingly rendering aid to a blonde woman who had passed out or fallen. Upon drawing closer, however, I saw they were scratching and patting Asteroid, who was eating it up. I joined the love-fest, instantly noticing and commenting on how silky and scrupulously clean her fur was. 

Asteroid’s cleanliness — and just about everything else — is thanks to her handler, Stefani Williams, a veteran of Huntsville Hospital’s Child Life program. Multiple studies have shown that stress, pain and anxiety inhibit the healing process, so therapy dogs are not only good company, but good medicine, as well.

On WZDX’s RocketCityNow.com, Stefani said that Asteroid “has helped reduce pain for a child who had surgery and was in excruciating pain and crying nonstop, and for the 30, 45 minutes Asteroid was in her room, she didn’t cry a single time. And so we’re already seeing the ways that she is gonna change lives here at Huntsville Hospital.”

The facility dog program is sponsored by contributions from employees and others to the Huntsville Hospital Foundation, which may explain why, per AL.com, a number of her coworkers plan to nominate Asteroid for employee of the year. 

We think she deserves it!

About the author

Brad Hall

Brad Hall

Brad Hall is a pastor and the author of "Lousy Roger and Other Tales: A collection of Lectionary-based Sermons," available on Amazon.com. In 2014, after 27 years of courtship, he married pop culture scholar Deborah Ann Miller. They share a place with two dogs, Scotty and Demitasse, and two cats, Quirkie and Brucie.

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