Hospital pet therapy program in Los Angeles continues to thrive despite coronavirus pandemic

In less than a day, hospital staff turned their in-hospital pet sessions into virtual visits online.
LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- The Pet Therapy Program at Children's Hospital Los Angeles is a big part of the hospital's culture. It plays a valuable role in patient healing. But with the onset of COVID-19, it came close to disappearing.

Now, thanks to some quick thinking and a little ingenuity, the program continues to thrive.

For more than a year, 4-year-old Rhett Dupke has been in and out of Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

"Last February in 2019, he was diagnosed with stage four neuroblastoma. Cancer," said Rhett's father Mike Dupke.

It's been tough, but what keeps Rhett going are visits from four-legged therapists. He formed a bond with a golden retriever named Cooper.

"Cooper is his favorite by far. He's the one that Rhett has talked about the most for sure," said Dupke.

The pet therapy program at CHLA was on its way to a 5-year milestone of being able to provide visits seven days a week. But the coronavirus pandemic threatened to shut them down.

"We were days away from hitting this 5-year streak mark that has been such a labor of love," said Kate Buhrmaster, manager of CHLA's Pet Therapy Program.

Buhrmaster and her colleagues decided to do something unprecedented. In less than a day, they turned their in-hospital pet sessions into virtual visits online.

"It's certainly the first time that we have incorporated this technology here," she said.

The team hit their mark, but most importantly, patients like Rhett continue to connect with their favorite furry friends. And even though it's through a screen, knowing Cooper is there makes all the difference.

"I think Rhett really enjoyed it," Dupke said. "He actually started petting the screen and got to give Cooper commands when it was time for treats. It was pretty wonderful."

"It's actually more flexible than we realized. There is the potential for us to still get a lot of that benefit," said Buhrmaster.

"I think it's a big plus. I think it makes kids just forget about whatever they're going through on that particular moment," Dupke said.

So far, CHLA has been able to provide more than a hundred virtual pet therapy visits to patients.

And while you can't feel a dog's warm fur, just seeing a happy and relaxed dog's face is enough to make you feel everything is going to be just fine.
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