Portsmouth hospital patients’ joy at visits from Clara the wonder dog

For many people time spent in hospital can be fraught. Loneliness, stress, anxiety and fear are just some of the roller coaster of emotions experienced by patients.

Saturday, 9th March 2019, 11:45 am
Updated Saturday, 9th March 2019, 12:50 pm
Clara at QA hospital, Portsmouth Picture: Habibur Rahman

While NHS staff strive to do their best, Queen Alexandra Hospital, Cosham, has called in  help of the four-legged variety in the form of Clara the blue merle collie, a therapy dog.

As we wander the corridors of E block it is clear to see that Clara is a hit with staff and patients alike. Before we even exit the main reception she is being greeted by affectionate cuddles, pats and even the odd treat.

For owner, Frankie North, 77, it is a way of giving something back to an establishment with which she has a strong emotional affinity.

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Clara at QA hospital, Portsmouth Picture: Habibur Rahman

‘My son had a stroke at the age of just 44. Even though it happened in London, it was Queen Alexandra that looked after him and helped him to recover. The job they did for my son was amazing and this is a way in which I can give something back,’ she explains.

With the swagger of a seasoned professional, Clara laps up the attention from staff but as soon as we move into the patient wards her professionalism comes to the fore and she instinctively knows her role.

Our first port of call is the brain and stroke rehabilitation ward where we are visiting a young man called Josh Evans, who suffered a brain injury in a motocross accident.

As Clara delicately positions herself on the chair, Josh reaches out and she affectionately buries her head into his hand.

Clara the pet therapy dog with Loraine Moir

‘Whenever Clara comes in it visibly lifts Josh’s spirits. It also helps improve his movement when he interacts with her,’ says Josh’s mother, Maxine Evans. 

Josh attempts to sit up and move towards Clara as she gently places her paw across his arm.

‘This is the first time I have seen Josh try to move himself towards Clara. It is real progress compared to when we first met Josh six weeks ago,’ explains a visibly excited Frankie.

For Loraine Moir, the benefits of Clara are even more meaningful for lonely patients.

Nurses Kelly Cole, Rachael Wheeler, Pam Whalley and Alice Farmer with Frankie North (second right) and Clara

‘For those patients who don’t get many visitors it is something for them to look forward to.’

The interaction epitomises the benefits that using pets as therapy can have for patients’ mental and physical health.

Kerry Coombes, medicine management technician, ritually greets Clara every Wednesday with the treat of shortbread biscuits. ‘Animals just seem to have a sixth sense and instinctively understand people who are suffering,’ she stresses.

Clara’s compassionate instincts were first noticed by Frankie’s daughter when out for a walk in Petersfield town centre.

‘There was a young man in a wheelchair and she made a beeline for him and sunk her head into his lap. It was then my daughter suggested getting in touch with the charity, Pets as Therapy,’ says Frankie.

With Clara’s placid and affectionate temperament assessed as ideal for the role, she was enrolled on the programme and for the past three years has been a regular sight at Queen Alexandra.

For staff at the hospital, Clara and Frankie have become valued members of the team. Rachael Wheeler, nurse practitioner on the ambulatory care ward, affectionately describes the role Clara has played in even the most difficult of circumstances.

‘One lady was receiving end of life care. She had no family or friends to visit and so Clara lay by her bed and provided that support and comfort by staying with her during the final hours of her life,’ she says. One area where Clara’s expertise is particularly significant is through her work with dementia patients. 

‘Patients with dementia love seeing Clara,’ explains Frankie. ‘Many of them have previously owned their own dogs and Clara can act as a real stimulus to recall memories of their own pets.’

While no doubt some people may remain sceptical as to the benefits animals bring to patients, the common consensus amongst the medics on the ward is one of universal approval. 

Dr Alexander Thomas says: ‘Hospitals can be a monotonous environment and Clara is a brilliant distraction for patients. She provides a calming influence and can help take patients’ minds off what can be worrying conditions.’

Ambulatory ward manager Kelly Cole adds: ‘Patients really look forward to Frankie and Clara’s visits. Interacting with Clara can bring a smile to their face and relaxes them from pain they may be experiencing and provides respite.’

However, it is not just patients who benefit from Clara’s presence with staff also welcoming the natural uplift she provides amidst the trials and tribulations of hospital life.

As Rachael explains: ‘We often have to give patients bad news and this can be really stressful. Every Wednesday when Clara arrives it provides staff with a real uplift. Everyone stops for a pat or a cuddle – it raises everyone’s spirits and you are ready to go again.’

For Frankie, it is the normality of outside life that Clara can bring to patients. ‘I think it momentarily declinicalises hospital for people. After interacting with Clara, one patient once said to me “it is like someone has opened the door and brought the outside world in”.’ she explains.

It is moments such as these which inspire Frankie to continue the work she is doing as part of Pets as Therapy.

‘I get so much satisfaction – doing this role is a privilege. People in hospital feel vulnerable and if me visiting them with Clara helps them to feel a little less vulnerable and more normal then we have done our job,’ she explains. 

PETS AS THERAPY 

Clara is one of five dogs who visit patients at Queen Alexandra Hospital with Pets as Therapy. 

The charity was established in 1983 by Lesley Scott-Ordish, a journalist who devoted much of her life to investigating the relationship between humans and animals, particularly dogs.

She established the charity after receiving letters and phone calls about the trauma experienced by elderly people forced to give up their pets when going into residential accommodation.

Since then, the charity has expanded to provide therapy to people from all different demographics and circumstances.

Charity representative Helen Brooker explains: ‘We currently have 600 volunteers with mainly dogs and some cats. ‘Our volunteers and pets now visit a wide range of places including hospitals, residential care homes, day centres and even prisons.’

One of the key areas of therapy being pioneered is their work with special educational needs children in schools.

‘We have some children who suffer from selective mutism,’ says Helen. 

‘There have been occasions when bringing a dog into school and allowing the child to interact has resulted in them starting to open up and talk.

‘For some children who may be apprehensive about reading in front of people, we get them to read to the dog to help develop their language skills,’ says Helen.

For more information on the charity, to request a visit or volunteer your pet, go to petsastherapy.org.