Patients in the Mary Coram rehabilitation unit and the children’s ward at Goulburn Valley Health get a special visitor every Wednesday: therapy dog Scruffy.
She and her owner, Glenda Norton, have been volunteering three hours at a time for the past three years to provide a fluffy, cuddly escape from the pain that comes with being in hospital.
“She is a wire-haired Jack Russell cross with a foxy; I adopted her from the Woodend pound when she was 14 weeks old,” Ms Norton said.
“I alternate weekly visits between here (GV Health) and Parkvilla hospital in Tatura.”
In a holder on her hip, Ms Norton keeps pictures of Scruffy’s parents, other therapy dogs that visit the hospital, and Scruffy wearing seasonal costumes such as bunny ears and a Santa hat.
She also has small cards with Scruffy’s face on them that read "Scruffy hopes you are better soon".
Ms Norton uses them as talking points when she visits the patients, as it cheers them up if they are feeling a bit down.
“Usually people will look at Scruffy and it’ll trigger memories of their own dog,” she said.
As she mentions this, an elderly lady with an Italian accent comes up to Scruffy and begins to talk about a dog she once had that used to sleep next to her bed and always leave hair in her slippers.
She smiles as she ruffles Scruffy’s wiry fur.
“That is a classic kind of interaction patients will have with Scruffy,” Ms Norton said.
It was Ms Norton’s niece, Katherine Byrne, who first suggested she and Scruffy volunteer at the hospital.
Ms Byrne was regularly visiting with her boxer, Ollie, before he died a year ago.
Diversional therapist Sharon Geraghty started getting therapy dogs in to the hospital about 14 years ago.
“I’d heard about the positive effects therapy animals had in nursing homes and I wanted to try it here,” Mrs Geraghty said.
“It has a hugely positive effect, not only on patients but on staff and visitors too.”
Mrs Geraghty said the therapy dogs brought joy into wards such as palliative care, which is often a sad experience, with patients unresponsive and the whole family around their bedside.
She reflected on a particularly moving experience involving Ollie and a palliative care patient who had all her family around for her final days.
“When the dog came into the room the lady sat up and almost smiled,” she said.
“The whole room burst into tears.”
Mrs Geraghty added that Scruffy would visit 48 beds in the Mary Coram rehabilitation ward, where most of the patients have had strokes, hip replacements or knee reconstructions.
Mrs Geraghty wants to bring more therapy dogs into the hospital but there are strict requirements.
“They need to have a calm temperament and be happy with people touching them all over their face,” she said.
Before coming into the hospital, Scruffy must be well groomed — this extends to Ms Norton brushing her teeth with an electric toothbrush.
Ms Norton puts a scarf on her that reads ‘Pet Therapy, Scruffy’, so people in the hospital can call her name and identify why she is there.
“I put little boots on her to stop her sliding on the freshly polished floors and so she can’t scratch the patients,” Ms Norton said.
“We have a routine now: she’ll come through the children’s ward and then I take her boots off and she goes into that garden for a wee.”
Scruffy attracts a lot of attention as she walks through the halls; patients in wheelchairs turn their heads and try to reach down and pat her.
“Is she leaving now?” one patient asks.
“No we’re just going to the end of the hall, she’ll be back in a bit,” replies Mrs Geraghty.
“She (Ms Norton) is amazing at what she does, nothing is too much trouble.
“If a there is a patient who is distressed, I only have to call up Glenda and she’s always happy to help out.”