On August 8, 2011, when my son, Derek, was in the SICU at National Naval Medical Center (now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center)(also known as Walter Reed Bethesda), which is located in Bethesda, Maryland, I was given news that shook me to the core. Derek was septic. His blood pressure was beyond dangerously low. The doctors rushed him off to the Operating Room to try to save him. It did not look good.
In a daze, Derek’s fiancée, Krystina, and I made our way down to Dunkin Donuts for a much needed cup of coffee. On the way back, I noticed two dogs walking through the lobby of Building Ten. I commented to Krystina that they were so cute.
The Golden Retriever’s ears perked up, and she “dragged” her handler over to us. It was as if she knew I needed her. She herded me into the chairs until I sat and began to pet her. Her buddy sat beside her, getting pets from Krystina. For the next few minutes, we were lost in the comfort of the beautiful creatures before us.
(Pictured from Left: Krystina Dressler, Bobbie Bitonti, Derek McConnell, Laura Lee Barry, Siobhan Fuller-McConnell, Sgt Archie O'Connor)
Such is the job of Walter Reed Bethesda’s facility therapy pups. They not only give comfort to the patients they visit daily, they help the families deal with hospital life and loss, and help reduce stress for the staff. Eyes light up, treats come out, and smiles abound when the dogs walk onto the floor. The truly are the facilities’ most cherished, if not most important visitors.
At Walter Reed Bethesda, there are three full-time therapy pups (Laura Lee, Sgt Archie, and Bobbie), and one part-time (Susie). All were donated to the hospital by Southeastern Guide Dogs, which is based in Florida. Paws For Patriots is a program started in 2006 by Southeastern, and it’s goal is to work with service members recovering from injuries. The dog program in Bethesda was started by Dr. David Bitonti in 2007.
The puppies, who are bred by Southeastern, spend about fourteen months with a volunteer puppy raiser who teaches basic obedience and socialization. Upon their return to Southeastern, formal training, which lasts four to six months, teaches the pups what they need to know for their new career. The choice of career is based on individual temperament, and if the original choice does not work out, for whatever reason, the dogs are given a career change. Southeastern has placed dogs with the blind, veterans, firefighters and policemen, as well as with hospitals for therapy dogs.
^ Got Treats?
Laura Lee, who lives with Patty Barry, a civilian employee at Walter Reed Bethesda, is a Golden Retriever. She came to Bethesda in 2008. As the sole therapy dog, she worked her paws to the bone. On June 4, 2010, her workload was eased by the addition of Cpl Archie, and in September 2010, Bobbie joined the ranks.
Archie was adopted by Amy O’Connor as a fifteen month old, German Sheppard puppy. “A German Sheppard was not what I had first expected to receive, but he quickly became a part of our family.” Although Amy now works as a Healthcare Resolutions Specialist at the facility, she is a social worker by training. Walking through the ICU, she saw the effect that Laura Lee had on patients and family members, as well as the staff. “She had a very calming influence,” she said. In the past, after 9/11, she saw how therapy dogs helped ease the family members who were grieving, so she willingly welcomed Archie into her family, and she relishes the work she does with him. In describing him she said he is a typical Marine, “He is focused and hard working. You will often see him scanning the perimeter to protect the other dogs, as well as the patients. He is always on alert.”
When Archie joined the facility, he was nicknamed “Corporal” Archie, but was promoted to “Sergeant” in March 2011. A full promotion ceremony honoring the newest Sergeant was performed by the Marines.
< Oh, the indignity!
The therapy dogs at Walter Reed Bethesda are given ranks and wear proper uniform coats, made with love by Lily Burch, a nurse at the hospital. Laura Lee is a Rear Admiral (two star) and has her very own parking permit. She really is top dog. Archie is a Sergeant in the Marine Corps, and he is expected to change uniforms when the Marines do. He must wear his woodlands coat in the winter, and Amy makes sure his uniforms are in proper order. Bobbie is a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy Nurse Corps and proudly wears her uniform. “They know when the coat goes on, they are working,” said Bobbie’s proud Mom, Lisa Bitonti, a volunteer at the facility. Lisa is often seen on Cookie Fridays, handing out cookies on the floor, but she is best known for her role with Bobbie. “We love visiting the patients, family and staff,” she said. She makes sure Bobbie keeps all her appointments, including special occasions.
The fourth working dog is a sweet, Golden-Lab mix, Susie, who mostly works in the Pentagon with a Sergeant Major in the Army. She recently joined the staff after the Sergeant Major’s prior therapy dog, Naoma, suddenly became ill and passed away around Thanksgiving 2011. Her death was felt throughout the hospital, and a ceremony in her honor was held in the Garden of Peace (located by the Chapel at Walter Reed Bethesda), where a stone in her memory sits. Naoma was a Command Sergeant Major, and young Susie is a First Lieutenant, both Army dogs.
^ Naoma's Memorial
Laura, Archie and Bobbie have been part of all of Derek’s milestones, as well as the milestones of many of the wounded warriors. They were there when Derek first stood on his new prosthetics, took his first steps, was promoted to Specialist, received his Purple Heart, and finally left the hospital after a seven month stay. “It wouldn’t be as special without them,” he said at his promotion ceremony. During one visit with Archie and Amy, Amy rushed out of the room to
get to the MATC, because a young man needed Archie by his side when he tried out his new legs. “He’s loved,” she said with a smile.
< Purple Heart Ceremony
Walking for the first time >
Laura Lee, Archie and Bobbie each have different personalities and temperaments, so there is a pup for everyone.
Laura Lee is alpha and an attention hog. If there is love to be given, she wants it. She is also extremely empathetic, and senses when she is needed. Her wise eyes and constant smile lull everyone into a sense of calm. She works a lot in Breast Care with the women receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer. In a crowd of people, she can pick out the one person who needs her the most. She loves to balance her treats on her nose and then flip them into her mouth to the delight of everyone.
Archie is, as Amy said, a typical Marine. He is always alert and on guard. He loves children and lets them crawl all over him. “I like him, even if he is a Marine,” commented Derek, an Army Specialist. Archie’s most famous trick is his “high ten” where he jumps up and gives double high paws. “The thing I love the most about Archie is that he makes people smile, he makes me smile,” commented Amy. “He is real to his core. You know when he is happy, when he is not, when he wants to be with you, and when he needs to take a nap.”
Bobbie is just a sweetie. She snuggles on the bed, when invited, and gives her rump for a good scratching. She does have a weakness, though, and, shhhh, don’t tell anyone I revealed this: Her only weakness is treats. She loves her food, her favorite of which is celery and other veggies, but she does not discriminate, and she will sit up and take notice whenever there is food around. She works a lot on the TBI/psychiatric ward. Lisa stated, “I was told that she has a way of getting people to open up and talk.” Lisa adds, “It is an honor being on the other end of Bobbie’s leash. She provides the comfort, and I’m so proud being her partner.”
< Loving Derek's cousins - Eric and AJ Maglio
Ask anyone at Walter Reed Bethesda about them, and there are not many who have not met one, or all, of these special additions to the staff. “I love when they come in, and when Archie settles on my bed,” said one patient, who does not wish his name to be used. “I really miss my dog at home, and Archie helps me with that.”
Archie visiting with Derek and Krystina in Bldg 62 >
The program at Walter Reed Bethesda is such a success that it is spreading to Quantico. Laura, Archie and Bobbie were invited to Quantico in December 2011 to make a presentation in the clinic. “They have such a great, therapeutic influence,” Amy said.
Lisa also says she is honored “to meet the wonderful patients and their families. They allow us into their lives, and I know my life is more meaningful because of them.”
When at Walter Reed Bethesda, to arrange a visit with one of the pups, contact Patricia Barry (firstname.lastname@example.org / 301-295-7895) or Amy O’Connor (Amy.R.O'Connor@health.mil / 301-319-4447). You will be glad you did.