It’s commonly believed that dogs have a calming effect on people. At M Health Fairview Masonic Children’s Hospital, there is proof. Fern, who began as one of two facility dogs there this spring can lower a child’s stress level just with her presence. Fern’s primary handler, Phylicia Petit, explains, “The nurses noticed every time Fern would walk by [one particular patient’s room, that patient’s] heart rate would change.”
Little changes like that can be a big deal when a child is in the hospital, especially on the cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU) where Fern spends most of her working time. The staff claim that one way or another, Fern is “sure to heal hearts.”
Her gentle personality fits her role perfectly. Phylicia remarks about Fern’s exceptional ability to read the room–a critical skill in their intense environment. “It's really cool to see how intuitive she is. She knows what is needed in the moment.” She gravitates towards children and teens of all ages,” but is “especially curious about infants (which is a large population in cardiac ICU), by stopping in doorways while we pass by or alerting me to crying from down the hall” Phylicia says.
She also might be an alternative focus for a child receiving a pain block wire, an example of how a stethoscope can hear a heartbeat, and a motivation for a child to walk with her for their first time following surgery. A cuddler at heart, she'll eagerly place her chin on a child's lap to "visit" or her head on their shoulder to "snuggle." Phylicia says that Fern just seems to “stare into your soul with her brown eyes.”
Another place Fern stares is into the camera. For four to eight hours each week, she is part of the small crew that produces shows in the Zucker Family Suite and Broadcast Studio. Closed-circuit television runs continuously in the hospital, and Fern (and sometimes fellow Can Do Canine Tasha) make regular appearances on the various shows. Fern has co-hosted episodes such as “Bingo,” “Coping Corner,” and “Bedtime Stories,” and has even demonstrated how a cast might be put on a broken bone (something she even experienced in 2020).
Theresa Bunkers is Fern’s handler in this role, and says, “I get to have so much fun doing my job on a normal day and then you add in Fern and it's just awesome.” Theresa has a wish list in the works, believing that a GoPro camera on Fern would make for a great virtual nature walk. “She has inspired me to think about my job differently,” says Theresa. “It allows me to be really creative.”
Phylicia admits that some of her favorite moments with Fern, though, are when her cape comes off at home. “Fern’s silly, playful, and social demeanor is so fun to watch. She loves to chase her tail, play with squeaker and tug toys, sniff in the back yard, and follow her mini dachshund sisters around the house.” She also reports Fern’s exemplary sleeping ability, remarking she “often snores like a grown man!”
At work, the two of them have been known to slide down the slide on the playground together. Then, when needing a nap, Fern can retreat to her personal space behind the pink, velvet drapes Phylicia made for her.
Both women are thrilled and honored to be part of this program. While the hospital previously had a facility dog, this is a pilot effort for Can Do Canines. Theresa sums up her experience so far saying, “It has exceeded all of my expectations and more. I feel really lucky that [Can Do Canines] had faith in us, that this was a good fit and that they chose these dogs for us.”
Considering all Fern has to offer, that same heartfelt gratitude will undoubtedly be experienced by countless children and families for years to come.
Thank you to all those who made this partnership possible:
Puppy Raiser — The Teal Family
Whelping Home — Diana Adamson
Special Thanks — Casey & Ryan O’Connell, University of Minnesota FETCH Program