Dog brightens patients’ days|Kasey is latest tool in fight against disease

Published 5:37 am Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Staff Writer

You can add a dog to the list of options patients have to battle cancer in Beaufort County.
Kasey, a chocolate Labrador retriever, made his debut at the Marion L. Shepard Cancer Center earlier this summer. Patients love him.
“The great thing about dogs is they love you no matter what, and I think people with cancer appreciate it all the more,” said Linda Miller, a patient at the center.
About half of the patients at the center — which is part of Beaufort Regional Health System — sign up for visits from Kasey, said his owner, Lalla Sidbury.
Joyce Rodgers agreed to see Kasey Monday, even though she doesn’t usually like getting close to dogs.
“I was being brave today,” she said with a smile, after giving Kasey loving attention, and, of course, treats.
Sidbury, recently retired from running the City of Washington’s human resources department after 18 years, said she and Kasey vary the days of the week they visit to make sure they see as many people as possible. Right now they’re going once a week, but hope to increase the frequency.
“They immediately smile when they see him walk in,” Sidbury said. “They just get this big grin on their face. It’s just the most welcoming smile you would ever hope to see.”
Many of the patients talk about pets they used to have, said oncology social worker Kristi Fearrington.
“It’s a real ice-breaker for a lot of patients,” Fearrington said. “They can talk to Kasey instead of actually looking at Lalla or me and say what’s on their minds.”
And Kasey helps out the staff, too, Sidbury said. Recently, after the center lost several patients in one week, Sidbury took Kasey around specifically to cheer the staff up. Fearrington called Kasey “the most popular volunteer we’ve ever had.”
Sidbury said there’s no hard part of the job to her, since the therapy is helping her, too.
But she did say the program, is cutting edge for an outpatient cancer center the size of Marion L. Shepard, and she has put a lot of work into making it a reality.
The program started after Sidbury spoke with Dr. Jennie R. Crews, the cancer center’s medical director, at Shagging for a Cure, a dancing-related cancer fundraiser. The two started talking after they bid against one another at a silent auction for a portrait of a chocolate Labrador.
At about that time, the cancer center was hiring a new social worker, Fearrington, who wanted to start using animal-assisted activities, which is often referred to as pet therapy.
The fit was natural, Sidbury said. She had been battling cancer herself with the help of Kasey and an earlier chocolate lab, Toby.
In fact, when Sidbury had been required to stay at the hospital for about a week, doctors had written into her treatment orders that she be wheeled outside to see her dog.
Fearrington and Sidbury decided to start a Pet Partners program affiliated with the Delta Society, a leading national service-animal organization.
Kasey and Sidbury had already done advanced obedience training, which helped the pair get certified through the Delta Society fairly quickly.
Sidbury took a home study course and a written exam. Kasey had a skills test, and simulation exercises to be sure he would be able to handle the distractions of a medical environment.
“The key to all that was having had the obedience beforehand,” Sidbury said.
Kasey also got a thorough examination from a veterinarian, and his health is rechecked every time he goes to visit the cancer patients.
The program is one of several programs the cancer center uses to enrich its patients’ lives. It also offers yoga, massage and art, among other activities.
“This just fits in here with (Dr. Crews’) goals for the center and the programs that we offer,” said Pam Shadle, the health system’s spokeswoman.