At two years old, Timmy Wilson was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL), a fast-growing cancer of a type of white blood cells called lymphocytes. He celebrated his fourth birthday in March at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, where he has lived for the last two months. His upcoming bone marrow transplant will keep him in the hospital for about three more months.
In February, Timmy was getting bored, fussy, tired of being poked with needles, wouldn’t get out of bed and just wanted to go home. Then along came a golden retriever named Ralph — one of two therapy dogs in Cook Children’s new Sit…Stay…PLAY! Program.
On this day, Timmy, wearing his purple cat-and-dog-print gown, and Ralph (Timmy calls him Ralphie) walk down to the kitchen to get a bowl of ice — one of Ralphie’s favorite treats. Ralphie sits beside Timmy on the bed and drools as he eats the ice. Timmy thinks it’s the funniest thing ever.
“Timmy’s always been the most loveable and outgoing kid,” said his dad, Jason Wilson. “But the longer he stayed in the hospital, the more he changed. When they brought Ralph in, he perked right up. Every stuffed animal he gets, he names Ralphie. We got him a new Yorkie-Maltese-mix puppy for his birthday. He hasn’t seen him yet, but, of course, he named him Ralphie. The first thing he asks every morning is, ‘Will Ralphie come today?’”
Cook Children’s has had visiting dogs for the last 20 years, but they only came once a week or once a month and never truly built relationships with the children or became a part of their treatment. Having dogs come five days a week is an important part of this program. There are only a handful of hospitals across the country that have programs like this. Cook Children’s patterned its after Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, which has seven dogs on staff.
“Their five-year-old program has been very successful, and that’s who we look at in terms of how their model works,” said Jill Koss, Cook Children’s director of Family Support Services. “Just in the few months that our dogs have been here, it’s been pretty amazing. What’s nice is we have backup handlers for our dogs. That allows the dogs to go not only with just one person, which allows for a wider variety of patients they can visit.”
Ralph’s real name is Ralph Lauren. His sister, Coco Chanel (known as Chanel), is also on the medical center’s staff. Both dogs began their training at 7 weeks old at Canine Assistants in Milton, Ga.
A certified service dog can work as a guide dog, alert dog, service dog or therapy dog. At Cook Children’s, Ralph’s expertise is used mainly for therapeutic purposes. Chanel works primarily with one of the anesthesiologists, but she splits her time with one of the Child Life specialists.
Like people, the dogs have different personalities, says Kizzy Marco, a Child Life specialist and Ralph’s primary handler. He also lives with her.
“Ralph is a clown,” she said. “He struts around and wants everyone to notice him. Chanel is more reserved.”
Marco says that Timmy is Ralph’s closest patient relationship. “On our first visit, because Timmy was so sick, I didn’t know if Ralph would be really worried about him, if it would be too emotional for him, because Ralph is aware and picks up on all emotions. We didn’t want to overwork him," Marco said. "But there was an instant bond. Anyone who has dogs can attest to how important that relationship is, but when watching a dog in a clinical setting where there’s a lot of stress and a lot of sickness, nobody can argue about the importance of the gifts they give.”
See the video here.