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The Heart of BIDMC

The Two Caring Sides of Joan Pickett

Most days you can find Joan Pickett in her office, working the phones and running meetings as Senior Director of Planning and Business Development at BIDMC. But some days Joan takes off her business hat, grabs her dog leash and brings her adorable West Highland Terrier named Mac to visit with patients at the hospital. That's because Joan is also a volunteer dog handler with BIDMC's Caring Canines program.

"It is a wonderful experience to bring comfort and some happiness and smiles to the folks we visit," says Joan. "It tends to brighten their mood especially for those patients that have pets at home."

Joan became a dog handler 15 years ago, after a trainer introduced her to the idea of pet therapy.

"I had never even heard of pet therapy at the time, but he thought me and my dog would be perfect," she recalls.

When Joan joined BIDMC 10 years ago, the hospital did not have a pet therapy program. There were concerns about the safety of having dogs in a hospital environment. But two dog lovers at BIDMC, Barbara Sarnoff-Lee, Director of Social Work, and Rev. Julia Dunbar, Director of Pastoral Care and Education, supported the idea and helped bring pooches to patients at the hospital through the Caring Canines program. Joan joined the group early on and now serves on its board.

"Joan is passionate about dogs," says Sarnoff-Lee. "She's been doing this a long time and sees them as valuable members of our community."

Caring Canines evaluates dogs and their handlers to ensure they are suitable for the program. Dogs must be at least one year old to join the program. Every other Wednesday, dogs and handlers arrive on Reisman 11 and 12 and spend time with patients who sign up for a visit from a furry friend.

"Patients are often anxious or bored and we provide them with an outlet to speak with a new person and a connection to their lives outside the hospital," says Joan. "It is unexpected to have a dog in the hospital, so the topic is often a relief from talking about their health, their next test, or wondering when they can go home."

Joan and Mac are among 90 pairs of handlers and dogs who visit patients at BIDMC and 60 other facilities around Greater Boston. But patients aren't the only ones who benefit from the four-legged visitors. Patients' families, doctors and nurses all enjoy the dogs and the break from the normal routine.

"It boosts the morale of staff too. You just watch a patient light up when the dogs arrive and you're sold," says Sarnoff-Lee.

And when you hear the many stories of patients who've benefited from the work of Joan, Mac and the many other Caring Canine volunteers, you know the program is working.

"Last year Mac and I visited a patient who got very emotional because she had a Westie back home in New York," remembers Joan. "She was very thankful for the opportunity to talk about her dog. The physical and mental aspects of healing are just as important as the medical component. It is such a small gesture that has huge rewards for everyone involved and that's what volunteering is all about."