If there seems to be an extra spring in Gael's steps as she struts down the halls of Memorial Regional Hospital, it's because she's now officially an award-winning therapy dog.
Gael, who works her canine magic at different clinical areas throughout Memorial Regional and at the Memorial's outpatient rehabilitation center in Hollywood, has been named the national winner of the 2018 Animal Therapy Award given out each year by Planetree International.
The Golden Retriever and her human, Jenny Hemmalin,will be traveling to Boston later in October to accept the national award.
Planetree is a mission-based not-for-profit organization that partners with healthcare organizations around the world and across the care continuum to transform how care is delivered.
Officials at the organization noted that Gael was chosen due to her talents, which include responding to patients with autism by blanketing the person with her body to give a therapeutic hug. The Planetree review board heard stories of her gentle and intuitive patient interactions that have truly impacted patient outcomes.
Gael is one of six full-time therapy dogs who toil at Memorial Healthcare System's Animal Assisted Therapy Program. Each of Memorial's six hospitals has a full-time golden retriever on staff, committed to enhancing patient care and the patient experience through creative therapeutic interventions.
Jenny Hemmalin, RN-C who works at Regional's Behavioral Health Services, said Gael is especially good with patients at the unit where she displays a keen intuition of when a patient is agitated and uses her training to calm them.
"I have been witness to some very touching moments where Gael has made a difference in someone’s care," Hemmalin said. "That’s what this program is all about. From a depressed patient that wouldn’t get out of bed until Gael came by, to children who are too afraid to tell their secrets to an adult but will tell Gael, it is very rewarding to see these moments that build on one another to help heal the patient."
Ken Iovino, who underwent a heart transplant at Regional, said the therapy dogs kept him going at times when he was feeling down.
"They've become part of my family and my care team just like the doctors and nurses have become," he said. "They come into your room and you totally forget about all the things that are going on. They are amazing animals."
Tracy Meltzer, who is Gael's home handler and a nursing director at Regional, said Gael's award exemplifies the success of the Memorial Animal Assisted Therapy Program that was established in 2009.
"It's a very moving and empowering program. I am in awe and humbled to witness the difference our dogs make in providing better outcomes for our patients and their families," she said.