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Lending a Helping Paw

By Mark Kostich

(Page 1 of 3)

Clinical literature has long documented that animal companionship can help the pain and discomfort associated with many of life’s greatest transitions. Animal companionship has helped during the time of military transfers, broken hearts, terminal illnesses, lost loved ones and teenagers going away to college. In 1964, American Child Psychiatrist Boris Levinson coined the phrase “pet therapy” to describe this phenomenon.

Pet therapy has been proven to help people in many ways, and in many different environments. Dejected nursing home patients tend to become more optimistic and interactive when visited by pets. Inmates in prison that are allowed to take care of small animals such as birds have proven to become less violent, less withdrawn and even more cooperative. Programs where small pets are brought to visit hospital patients can help offset feelings of fear, loneliness and isolation. Pet dogs have been reported to have a calming effect that has actually reduced owner’s heart rates and calmed blood pressures. The presence of pets has also been proven to increase social skills, communication and helped make the emotionally disturbed more responsive and even helped people live longer.

As a *Radiation Therapist (Cancer Treatment) at UNC Hospitals, in Chapel Hill, NC for almost 8 years, I have worked with hundreds of patients and their families, bringing them through very difficult treatments and often during the last days of their lives. Treating terminally ill children can be a special challenge. While their treatment needs are essentially the same as that of an adult, a child’s ways of caring, showing affection, and communicating can be different. Also the amount of care, and the techniques and gestures that you use in dealing with children when you are implementing their care is different than with adults. For example, you might kneel down so that you can talk to them at eye level, allowing the child to feel less intimidated; or try to use words that they can understand rather than medical terminology; or even explain procedures to them through circumstances that they are familiar with. With an adult, I would tend to be more straightforward and technical.

Caring for a terminally ill child can also be very trying on the parents or guardians who usually have never gone through this kind of situation before. The responsibility can easily overcome parents who want to help, but simply don’t know how. In the end, the frustration, anxiety and stress can negatively affect the lives of the parents as well as the child involved.

A child will need many different types of emotional support including; acknowledgement of sadness, and help in dealing with anger, fear, guilt and isolation. Communication is essential in these situations. The child should be allowed and encouraged to express his or her feelings and share their memories or ideas to help facilitate bereavement and mental healing. They should also be allowed and encouraged to express themselves in any artistic, musical, poetic or other creative way. This, along with a good close relationship with the parents, can help make a good seamless transition between phases of the illness as well as the surrounding settings. Children, even more often than other patients must stay in different places during various phases of their treatment. This constant shuffling proves particularly difficult for children to cope with.


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