Darla loves going to work — she’ll not only see people she knows and likes but will also meet new friends, all of whom will be happy to see her. In fact, the minute Peg Rummel, BSN, MHA, an oncology nurse navigator in Patient & Family Services in Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center (ACC), takes out Darla’s work ID and red bandana for her “job” as an animal-assisted therapy (AAT) dog, she’s ready to go!
Anyone with a pet — be it a cat, dog, bird, or other — knows the positive impact they can have on physical, mental, and emotional health. According to therapydogs.com, “studies show that owning a pet can help you live a longer, happier, and healthier life.” One study from researchers at UCLA Health showed that even those who don’t own a pet can experience a mood boost simply by petting an animal. A connection to an animal — whether through owning a pet or AAT — can also lower blood pressure and reduce anxiety and loneliness.
AAT has been a part of patient “care” at HUP for many years. But while programs such as “HUP’s Pups” bring animals to interact primarily with patients (although staff clearly enjoy the canine visits as well), “De-stress with Darla” days are focused on members of the ACC’s Patient and Family Support Services staff, which includes social workers, patient navigators, dietitians, and others involved in the care of cancer patients.
“Our staff are often working with people in crisis,” said Heather Sheaffer, DSW, director of Patient & Family Services (PFS). “We sometimes see them before their diagnosis and through treatment, and into survivorship… even end-of-life care.” With relationships that last up to 20 years or longer, attachments form, and when a patient dies, “it’s like losing a part of your family.”
Always looking for ways to help support her staff and boost morale, in 2017 Sheaffer decided to create an initiative based on the outpatient dog therapy program. Her first step was to meet with staff to make sure everyone was comfortable with a dog in their PFS staff-only area. Everyone gave it a thumbs up, and, as it turned out, getting a therapy dog was the easy part.
Rummel had recently lost her own beloved dog — the “original” Darla — and was not only looking for another but was also interested in training the dog for AAT. In her online search for a new canine buddy from various rescue groups, a dog (part border collie and lab) named Darla became available. Rummel believes it was kismet.
Rummel began obedience and pet therapy training soon after Darla arrived from her previous “home” — a kill shelter in Georgia. Now, 18 months later, every week (usually Fridays), Darla joins Rummel at work. She has her own space in Rummel’s office complete with blanket, toys, water, and food, but she always makes the rounds in the PFS offices to make sure “her” people are ok.
“She checks people out to see how they’re doing and sniffs their offices to make sure all is well,” Rummel said. “She’s very protective of us.” And intuitive. Once, when one of the cancer navigators received a call about a death in her family, Darla went into the office and “sat with her… just sat.”
She also makes people laugh, Sheaffer said. “We always talk about self-care and supporting yourself, which can be more of a contemplative process, but with the dog it can be funny. She lays upside down in the hall with her bone and you just have to laugh. Or else she’s sniffing in a bag, looking for yogurt. She brings a lightness to the department.”
Darla spreads her joy in other locations, as well, including making “special appearances” in the nonclinical administrative oncology floors in the Smilow Center and sometimes in the outpatient oncology clinic. Both staff and patients want to see her, Rummel said. One time, Darla helped a clinic patient who had recently lost his dog of 15 years and had never really gone through the grieving process. “It was very therapeutic for him to pet and talk to her, and for her to give him her love.”
She also brought Darla to a House Staff Appreciation Day, an annual event at HUP recognizing residents and fellows for all they do. “One resident said ‘I love her. I wish we could have her here all the time!’” Rummel said. She assured the resident that if he was in on a Friday and looking for some doggie love, to just call and she’d bring Darla to him for a “session.”
For ACC staff members, Darla is a great addition to the team. “When Darla is here, our blood pressure goes down and she makes us laugh,” one said. “She is so integral to our wellbeing.”