Westfield teen recalls therapy dog experience


By Haley Miller

Ellie Sullenberger, 17, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor at 13, would sometimes wake up in her hospital bed to a therapy dog lying next to her.

“It was the cutest thing,” said Sullenberger, a Westfield resident. “I love it, and it’s one of the only things I remember.”

During the past year, the coronavirus pandemic forced pet therapy teams like those that visited Sullenberger to halt in-person visits at Ascension St. Vincent Hospital. Paws & Think, the organization that provides the dogs, will defer to national recommendations and the comfort level of their volunteers as they decide when to restart in-person interaction with patients.

The dogs returned to the hospital in April to support and interact with the staff. Clinical program manager Kaitlin Knapp said staff wants to resume bedside visits with patients again soon.

In the meantime, Sullenberger had the opportunity to see some of the therapy dogs at the 20th anniversary celebration for Paws & Think.

“Pipsqueak, one of the smallest dogs I’ve ever seen, was there,” Ellie said. “I was pretty much holding her the whole time, and I kept joking that I was going to steal her because one of these days I’m going to.”

Knapp said pet therapy aligns with a holistic approach to care, including not only physical health but mental and emotional health as well.

“When you walk down the hallway, just people passing by, you just hear this wonderful, ‘A dog!’” Knapp said. “Their mood instantly lifts.”

Sullenberger said she especially missed seeing the dogs at the hospital last year when she was undergoing chemotherapy.

“They distract from a lot of the things, and there’s no judgment at all from a dog,” Sullenberger said. “You can cry, and they don’t care.”