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 Bessie and Birdie with their handlers Ruth and John at Columbia St. Mary's Hospital Ozaukee for bed-side visits. 

Bessie and Birdie with their handlers
Ruth and John at Columbia St.
Mary's Hospital Ozaukee for
bed-side visits.

  Bessie loves visiting and people often say that she is the best part of their day. 

Bessie loves visiting and people
often say that she is the best
part of their day.

 Birdie uses her calm and friendly personality to bring joy to patients. 

Birdie uses her calm and friendly
personality to bring joy to patients.

Savard is pictured here with a patient on his last day before retiring from AAT.

Savard is pictured here, with a 
patient, on his last day before 
retiring from AAT.

Bessie and Birdie are two of Columbia St. Mary’s (CSM) most devoted and hard-working volunteers.   Their direct interaction helps patients and families dealing with illnesses, injuries or disabilities.

Columbia St. Mary’s commitment to provide an exceptional patient experience takes on a whole new meaning with its Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) Program launched in 2002 by Laura Hey, Director. “It is well documented that animal-assisted therapy improves a patient’s physical well-being while providing a level of emotional comfort,” states Hey, who has a degree in Animal-Assisted Therapy. 

Bessie, a four-legged resident of Port Washington, and her handler, Ruth, have been an AAT team for three years at CSM. Bessie’s very calm demeanor allows her to connect well with everyone she meets. At a typical visit, Bessie and Ruth check in at the front desk, visit staff and the waiting areas, and make their rounds to patient rooms. Everyone who meets her gets something different out of their time with Bessie. Some share stories about their pets, some have questions, and some sit quietly petting her while waiting for  their treatments.

Ruth exclaims, “When Bessie enters a room, people change. The mood becomes positive. She’s a conversation starter. It is a small thing that makes a huge difference in a patient’s day.”

Perhaps Bessie's best trait is that she is a wonderful listener. “She is a sweetheart,” says Ruth, “She knows a lot of secrets, but, of course she doesn’t tell.” Bessie turned eight years old in August. When she’s not visiting at CSM, you might find her volunteering with the Wisconsin Humane Society, visiting special education children, visiting developmentally disabled adults and spreading joy at nursing homes. Bessie has her own calendar and Ruth is her chauffeur.

Bessie is known for saying goodbye when she leaves a room. She will sit and wave her paw. Bessie knows when Ruth says, “Oh Bessie, do you want to meet some new friends?” this is her cue to move on to the next patient.

Birdie understands what it’s like to be a patient. Before her handler, John, adopted her and brought her to live in Fox  Point, Birdie had a heart defect that caused a severely enlarged heart. John explains, “Birdie had been found very sick, abandoned on the grounds of an overcrowded shelter in Kentucky. She was brought to Wisconsin where it is easier to find homes for unwanted animals.” After surgery and a catheterization procedure, Birdie is doing well and is expected to have a normal life span. Her story can be helpful to share with patients who may be anxious about their own medical ailments and situations.  

According to John, Birdie is universally friendly and accepting of everyone she meets. Birdie and John have been an AAT team at CSM since March of 2008. She is known as a great bedside visitor, very adaptable, calm and gentle.

When not visiting at CSM, Birdie enjoys trips to the dog park where she can run (she is very fast!). Because Birdie likes to chase rabbits and squirrels, she can’t be off-leash in her yard at home. Birdie almost never barks – except when she sees a deer!

Savard belongs to Laura Hey, Director of Animal-Assisted Therapy. Savard retired in February from AAT after eight years of being a therapy dog, and he now enjoys retired life at home in Menomonee Falls. Savard was one of the first dogs in CSM's program. He specialized in working with patients during their therapy sessions while at the Sacred Heart Rehabilitation Institute. Savard also provided comfort to patients receiving cancer care. Laura recalls a letter from a patient who was getting her first cancer treatment. "This patient explained she was alone, frightened and anxious but once Savard entered the room, that changed and she felt better about being there." Patients often commented that therapy with Savard didn't even seem like therapy. 

Savard, who is twelve and a half years old, enjoys spending time with his family, another therapy dog and three cats at home. He still loves everybody and takes frequent walks in the woods. If you encountered him, Savard would greet you with a big smile.

Bessie and Birdie are two of about twenty Animal-Assisted Therapy dogs at Columbia St. Mary's. 

Our Program is Unique
Because of stringent program guidelines and training developed by Laura Hey, Columbia St. Mary’s AAT program generates exceptional results. Specially trained therapy dogs and handlers volunteer in lobbies and waiting areas and in intensive care and post-surgical units, bringing social and emotional comfort and support. “Therapy Dogs are also actively incorporated into patients’ therapy goals,” says Hey. In therapy, the dogs help patients overcome physical, language and emotional obstacles.

Studies have shown that therapy dogs in healthcare can result in:

  • Faster recovery times
  • Increased engagement and progress in therapy
  • Improved coping and adjustment
  • Increased feelings of calm and comfort
  • Decreased pain

Get Involved!
Columbia St. Mary’s is recruiting dog and handler teams to expand its program. To find out more about Columbia St. Mary’s AAT programs, request visits, or to volunteer, please contact Laura Hey at (414) 298-6804.

Funds for the AAT program are generously provided by Columbia St. Mary’s Foundation. Please click here to make a donation for CSM’s Animal-Assisted Therapy Program. Select "other" in the drop-down Gift Designation menu and indicate “Animal-Assisted Therapy.” Your gift to the Foundation makes a tremendous impact on the lives of patients.


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