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LG Health employee’s "pawsitively” inspiring volunteer journey

For over 20 years, Maria Wright, BSN, RN has served others as a nurse, first as an LPN and working her way up to RN in 2020 and BSN in 2022. Now a Rehab Case Manager with the Neuro Recovery program at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, she provides individualized rehabilitation programs to help patients overcome or minimize the impact of brain injuries and disorders, stroke and other neurological conditions. With the goal of transitioning patients to the next step in outpatient care, she becomes an expert on the patient's background and advocates for the best possible recovery process. 

Wright is devoted to service and accessibility for people with medical needs outside of her job, too. She has volunteered with United Disabilities Services (UDS) service dog program since 2016 where she helps connect others to service dogs, while she now waits on one of her own.

A longtime volunteer puppy parent 

Maria’s teenage son, shown here, sitting on a chair next to one of the UDS service dogs.
Wright’s son also volunteered with the UDS service dog program as part of his senior project.

Wright began volunteering with UDS when her son Nicolas was completing his senior project on UDS. It inspired her to continue volunteering, even after his project was finished. The service dog program relies on volunteers to house the incoming puppies, attend weekly classes, and ensure the pup is housebroken, socialized and trained on basic commands and obedience; as well as given specific health care before being placed with a person with disabilities. Although when a volunteer helps raise and train a puppy the only “cost” they incur is the time commitment, patience and providing lots of puppy love.   

The program Maria volunteers with is the UDS Service Dogs Program, “Pups in Prison”. The two-year program begins with the puppies living with volunteers like Maria and her family after UDS gets the puppies at two-months-old. From about six months to 11 months old, the puppies go into the federal prison system to allow inmates to benefit from training service dogs.  The puppies then return to a volunteer’s home until 18 months old, and if the dog has been successful, they will get matched with a potential person. Once they are matched, they will work with UDS trainers at the facility until they are two years old, mastering the specific physical, mental and emotional skills needed to help their newly matched person. 

Volunteering with the service dog program has been “life changing,” Wright said — a welcomed gift of comfort and joy since she was diagnosed with high-grade uterine leiomyosarcoma, or cancer of the uterus, in February 2022. Now on her fourth round of treatment, Wright said that although the cancer has spread to her lungs, it is a low disease burden, and she is relatively asymptomatic.  

“I am thankful to be a year into managing the disease—and that is worth celebrating,” she said. 

In the meantime, both Wright and the UDS service dogs have more to give to one another.  

A Penn Medicine CARES grants supports service dogs’ care

The white and brown dog Cappuccino is laying under a table, looking up at the camera, with his front paws crossed.
Maria is working with Cappuccino or “Cappy” in order for him to become someone’s service dog.

Wright recently applied for and received a Penn Medicine CAREs grant to help cover the cost of healthcare for the incoming service dogs. Some of the specific care protocols include spaying/neutering, all routine vaccinations, monthly heartworm preventative care, monthly flea and tick preventative care and elbow and hip x-rays done over a period of 22 months. The Penn Medicine CAREs grant program provides financial support for faculty, staff, and students to augment their service activities in communities across the region. Since the effort’s inception, Penn Medicine has awarded funding to more than 1,000 projects, recently surpassing $1 million in funding since 2012. 

The grants are part of a broader spectrum of community service and engagement work that includes screening events, patient navigation programs, health fairs and more. In addition to supporting Wright’s work, other grants have supported an endoscopy nurse working with a clinic to provide health care services and resources to medical students working with a clinic supporting those seeking asylum in the United States. 

Finding her own furry friend

Maria Wright, BSN, RN sitting on a chair with the white and brown dog Cappuccino sitting in front of her. Cappuccino has fake reindeer antlers on his head.
Maria is working with Cappuccino or “Cappy” in order for him to become someone’s service dog.

Between work, spending time with family and friends, and volunteering with service-dog-in-training Cappuccino aka “Cappy” Wright has had lots of distractions from her cancer treatment and diagnosis.

“Helping other people find their own service dog, and the connections I have made with my fellow UDS volunteers, has given me a sense of purpose while waiting on my own service dog,” she said.  

Wright is currently on the waiting list for a service dog through UDS. Once the lengthy process is complete and she is “matched,” Wright’s own service dog will alleviate some of the physical limitations that comes with the disease and chronic illness. For example, a trained service dog that matches with Wright will help her with opening and closing doors, balance, turning lights on and off, and paying a cashier.  

“A service dog is an extension of their person—like how a walker can help some people move from place to place. Also, since germs are everywhere, when a dog can touch a surface instead of me, that can help with my independence and save me from compromising my health,” said Wright.  

In the meantime, Wright enjoys spending time with her three dogs at home, working towards Cappy’s certification as an official service dog, and taking him to Hershey Bears hockey games. She finds joy in seeing the young fans’ faces light up when they get to love on the new puppies, who are already acing their new jobs. 

To learn more about Penn Medicine CAREs grants, click here.


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