Those who know her best describe Miki as the ‘happiest employee of Eastern Health.’
She has no idea that her very presence at the Waterford Hospital represents a ground-breaking approach to patient care in the Mental Health and Addictions Program.
And, she has no idea of the difference she’s already made to patients battling a variety of mental health issues.
What the 20-month old mini Australian Shepherd does know is that she loves to come to work – and she loves people.
More than that – Miki also knows how to sense anxiety in people, how to engage with them and provide intervention. She was trained in Winnipeg as a Medical Service Dog by master trainer George Leonard and his team with the MSAR program, who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Miki is the province’s first certified medical service dog for this particular population of people – a groundbreaker in mental health circles when it comes to ‘paws on’ patient care.
Beverly Wiscombe is Miki’s owner and handler. A registered nurse with 30 years’ experience at the Waterford Hospital, she met Miki last year on a trip to Manitoba, while visiting a friend with PTSD. The friend suggested that Beverly bring Miki back to the Waterford with her – and the rest is history.
Both Beverly and her husband have been trained by the same man who trained Miki – and the medical staff and leadership in the Mental Health and Addictions Program were very supportive of Miki’s coming ‘on board.’
“We’re always thinking about what we can introduce to help our patients in the Psychiatric Assessment and Short Stay units,” says Beverly. “This initiative was one of the easiest things to implement I’ve ever seen – and has probably had one of the biggest impacts!”
And how exactly does Miki help?
Beverly says Miki often heads to the waiting room after arriving at work. Her training allows her to intervene to address what’s referred to as ‘interruptive behaviour.’ She can sense a range of emotions such as anxiety, sadness or frustration. Invariably, she will gravitate to the patient who is anxious or sad, ignoring a friend or family member who may have accompanied the patient.
She’ll position herself close to the patient, often placing her paws on their legs – and if she senses a positive response, will lean in and place her face close to theirs.
Miki’s simple actions accomplish a number of important things: they reduce symptoms of distress and isolation and help to de-escalate feelings of anger and fear. Her calm, loving personality helps to ‘ground’ patients and to lower their guard, even during their initial assessment.
“There is evidence to show that interactions with animals, for people who enjoy animals, can decrease anxiety and improve mood,” says Dr. Taryn Hearn, a psychiatrist at the Waterford Hospital. “Of course, decreased anxiety and improved mood are part of our goals of treatment for patients.”
“Most patients admitted to the short stay unit are in crisis,” Dr. Hearn added.
“Beyond that, hospitalization increases stress just from the need to adapt to a new environment. Having Miki around to decrease stress appears to make some people’s experience in the hospital easier and better – and that is wonderful.”
And that’s just the beginning, according to Maureen Moores, a program manager with Eastern Health’s Mental Health and Addictions Program.
“We hope this process will decrease the symptoms that brought the patient to admission here, and help to increase a sense of comfort and calm on the unit as a whole,” Maureen added. “Moving forward, we see Miki contributing more positive patient experiences for those in acute crisis, as well.”
Most service dogs are trained to provide intervention to just one person at all times. Miki’s a bit different: her area of responsibility lies with multiple patients. She wears a vest to and from work – and while accompanying Beverly to more formal meetings in the hospital – and has learned not to interact with anyone else during those times.
When the vest comes off, however – kind of like any health professional taking off their jacket when they’re ready to work – it’s a signal that she’s free to practice her unique set of skills with those patients who need her intervention.
“The field of mental health has long considered the biological, psychological, social and spiritual components of a person to contribute to their overall presentation,” Dr. Hearn explains.
“I do know that when patients tell me they enjoy seeing Miki and ask me when they’ll see her again, it reminds me to always be open to other modalities of treatment. Miki is providing another evidence-informed treatment, and to me, that’s medicine!”
For the past few months, Miki’s been in orientation: getting used to the patients and staff – her work surroundings and daily routine.
She officially started her duties this week, on September 3, 2014.
From here on, each patient – should they desire – will have a 10 to 15 minute time period to spend one-on-one with Miki and Beverly. This could involve some quiet time in a patient’s room or taking a short stroll outside with Miki, depending on the physician’s orders. She’ll work Monday to Friday, for at least four hours per day.
But if the interactions that have taken place already are any indication – her proud owner says she has already become one of the most beloved and valuable members of the mental health and addictions staff!
“People come here and they’re upset, and Miki asks nothing, just wants to provide intervention,” Beverly adds. “It’s exciting – almost overwhelming; I get goose bumps when I see her engage, and then see our patients’ fear and anxiety decrease.
“It’s so worthwhile just to see the difference on someone’s face – to see that moment when Miki makes them feel better.”
And in health care, what more could you ask for? ■
This story was written by Deborah Collins, a communications manager with Eastern Health, based in St. John’s.