(BALTIMORE) — A therapy dog in Baltimore is bringing joy to health care workers through digital therapy dog visits.
Loki, a 2-year-old Rottweiler therapy dog at the University of Maryland Medical Center, is known for comforting patients each week. But when the coronavirus pandemic prevented therapy dogs from visiting the hospital, Loki and her owner, Caroline Benzel, had to figure out a creative way to help patients.
So, Benzel came up with the idea of remote therapy dog visits.
“I’ll Facetime and Loki and will go outside and sit in my mom’s front yard,” Benzel told ABC News’ Good Morning America.
She said that she tells patients to close their eyes and imagine a different scene outside the confines of the hospital.
“I’m outwardly talking,” she said. “Imagine sitting at a park and we’re having a conversation so they can hear the birds, they can see people walking by. So that’s kind of how we’ve been doing it now.”
Benzel, who is a second-year medical student at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, started training Loki since she was 18 weeks old. She gets Loki acclimated to the hospital’s environment and patients. Benzel has described her pup as a natural at her job.
“I’ve never met a dog that’s so empathetic. It’s kind of strange. There have been many circumstances at the hospital where she can just read a situation where a patient is in a very bad way or a family member is going through a loss,” said Benzel.
Before COVID-19 hit, Benzel would also dress Loki in her signature white coat that was custom made for every hospital visit with patients.
Since transitioning to remote visits, it’s given Benzel and Loki a chance to connect with patients and hospital staff. The FaceTime visits also made Benzel notice the physical effects of masks that healthcare workers are forced to wear.
“I was seeing the masks doing the damage to the nursing staff, the doctors, the social workers, because everyone, custodians to doctors are all required to wear it,” Benzel said.
She thought of ways that she could help those experiencing the issue and came up with care packages called “Hero Healing Kits.”
The kits, which have Loki’s face on them, include products like hypoallergenic lotion for irritated skin, packs of gum to help with dry mouth, medicated powder to help with skin irritation, Vaseline, chapstick and tea and coffee packets. Each kit also has a thank you note with messages of appreciation for hospital staff during this time.
With the help of her neighbor, Benzel has put together about 1,400 kits so far and medical students have raised $300 to $400. The kits have become so popular, a medical student in Philadelphia also started the Hero Healing Initiative there. Benzel has also expanded and has created kits for neighboring hospitals.
The kits were also a way for Benzel to give back to the medical community who stood by her when Loki recently had to undergo ACL surgery for a broken foot, which required cash up front.
“I didn’t know how I was going to come up with that kind of money as a medical student,” Benzel said. “The hospital staff [at UMMC] suggested I do a GoFundMe, and the whole surgery and physical therapy ended up being covered by donations within two weeks.”
“They did that for me when I was down and I know the people there are going through a hard time now themselves. I wanted to do what I could to return the favor and show them how much I care about them and the UMMC system,” she added.
Now with the help of her dog Loki amidst the coronavirus pandemic, she’s hoping it inspires others to give back.
“Loki truly is an amazing dog and it’s been such a blessing to be able to be able to spread her personality and share it with the hospital system as a whole,” said Benzel.
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