Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Canine Connection

by Chris Gasiewski

With students aligning the walls of room 228 in Alumnae Hall on March 30, Bridget and Delilah—two Darlington Great Pyrenees—were providing instant gratification to one corner of the room. Orion, their counterpart, was resting comfortably underneath the arm of freshman Brian Hamel.

It wasn’t your typical classroom setting. Instead, it was a glimpse into Dr. Diane Dembicki’s Healing and the Arts course, which is housed in the School of Nursing. The class teaches several different types of therapies, including art, music, dance and drama treatments. And the latest healing demonstration displayed how therapeutic dogs can provide a slice of happiness to hospital patients.

“You don’t get that experience often. Seeing these dogs changed my thinking,” said Brian, a self-proclaimed cat lover. “People were calling me the dog whisperer.”

Maybe so, but the Great Pyrenees were actually trained by Susie Wong, who has raised and specialized in Great Pyrenees for more than 20 years. Primarily, she visits North Shore-Long Island Jewish University Hospital two-to-three times a week, bringing the cuddly canines to several floors and units in the hopes of bringing a smile to the faces of the patients.

“They touch their souls,” said Ms. Wong, who recruited her children, Michael (21), Lauren (19) and Michelle (15) into the family business. “It’s just incredible. People in general forget how lucky we are. Going into the hospital and meeting all kinds of people from all walks of life, it’s just incredible.”

Ms. Wong witnesses the overwhelming joy that her dogs bring almost daily. She’s most fond of the palliative care unit, where her work has been rewarded with seeing great responses out of patients. She also tells the story of a little girl who suffered from a bone disease that resulted in pain when she made facial expressions. However, Ms. Wong’s dogs changed that.

“There were days she would come in and eat, and she would smile,” Ms. Wong said. “She said to me that ‘you are the only one who has ever made me smile.’”

Spring 2012 marked the third straight semester that Dr. Dembicki hosted Ms. Wong and the therapy dogs. Reviving the course after a brief hiatus, Dr. Dembicki has provided her students with an experiential learning experience like no other.

She assigns projects that include viewing various art pieces and sculptures around campus to observe their therapeutic characteristics. On Wednesday, April 4, the class will perform music therapies outdoors. There’s a social commentary component on contemporary arts and healing, as well as folk healing and shamanism. The class also did a community service project and made a voluntary contribution to the Pet Therapy Program, which was founded by Ms. Wong, at North Shore-LIJ Hospital.

“It looks at various therapies in healthcare,” Dr. Dembicki said of the course. “It is an interdisciplinary class, and we have faculty come in from the art department and psychology department. We make use of the computer technology at the University on Moodle, where the students have a weekly discussion forum.”

Mostly, Dr. Dembicki said, the class is popular because it allows students an opportunity to decompress from the rigors of academia. Her students, including Brian, agree.

“This class is really important for everyone to take,” Brian said. “If anything, it’s an escape from the daily stress and you can stimulate your mind in a different way. It’s really, really useful.”

For behind-the-scenes pictures and to find out when our therapy dogs video is ready, follow Adelphi University on Facebook.