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The dog will see you now

24 April 2015

Pat Ashworth learns about a remarkable ministry at Burrswood Hospital


Walkies: supporters of the hospital at the Bark for Burswood event last year

Walkies: supporters of the hospital at the Bark for Burswood event last year

THERE is a visiting therapist at Burrswood Christian Hospital in Kent who is known simply by her first name, Marnee. She ministers to all the patients regardless of their condition, can sense by instinct what is wrong and what might help, and, remarkably, can achieve all that without speaking a word to the patient. And, by the way, you can stroke her.

Marnee is a Pets as Therapy (PAT) dog. On Sunday, she'll be joined by a large number of other dogs in Burswood's beautiful grounds and surrounding countryside for the hospital's third sponsored walk, "Bark for Burrswood". It's a fund-raising event both for the hospital and for PAT, which plays a valued part in the holistic care of patients here.

The director of nursing at Burrswood, Suzanne Owen, describes the hospital's approach as "a marriage of ministry and medicine". It spe-cialises in intensive rehabilitation and respite, post-operative, and palliative care.

She grew up locally, and came here with her church on a Quiet Day. She recalls of that experience: "When I got out of the car, I felt that God really said to me: 'You will work here one day.' And I knew in my head that it would be as matron."

Fifteen years later, in 2002, and after working in several large hospitals, she did exactly that.

It is still a very vocational place, she reflects of Burrswood, widely acclaimed for its high levels of clinical and compassionate care. "There is a tangible presence of God here. Those who recognise that presence as the presence of God will be able to say that; people who don't have faith - and we welcome patients who don't - don't express it in a spiritual way, but say there's something special here, or that it's really peaceful.

"I've heard it said, and believe it to be true, that Burrswood is a 'thin' place, in the Celtic sense."

Medical, emotional, and spiritual care here is "blended, plaited, woven together in the disciplines of the teams", she says: easier to achieve in a 40-bed hospital than in a much bigger one. 

PAT dogs have been part of that care for many years, and the hospital is delighted that its principal visiting dog, Marnee, was this year's winner of the HiLife PAT Dog of the Year at Crufts.

She and her owner, Noel Austin, have made 1000 visits over the past 11 years to hospitals, care homes, and schools, and, most happily of all, they say, to Burrswood.

"There's something very therapeutic for patients to be able to interact with an animal," Ms Owen reflects. "There's something about the way, when you are stroking a dog's head, that the dog looks at you - it's a wordless communication. It verges on the spiritual, because it touches the person deep within, in a way that words and human interaction doesn't quite do." 

NOEL AUSTIN concurs with that. She has had ten generations of Golden Retrievers, and Marnee is her ninth home-bred PAT dog.

She believes that they are born to the work. "They can either do it or they can't. It's an inborn temperament, an ability to be patient while the handler talks to whoever it is. You can't put it there," she says.

"When we bred puppies, we always earmarked the one we wanted. We'd wrap it up in a blanket, and take it up to Crowborough Hospital, where we'd play pass the parcel with the puppy. They can't be registered that young, but we would just see how relaxed it was, whether it could cope with the atmosphere, and with being moved from one person to another. I must say, they all passed the test, and stayed."

The extraordinary sensitivity of PAT dogs manifests itself in many ways. Confronted with a wheelchair, Marnee will not position herself face on to it, seeming to know by instinct that if the occupant leans forward to stroke her, he or she will fall out of the chair.

Instead, the dog will shift her bottom so that she is sitting by the side, and the person in the chair simply has to lean sideways.

"I have not taught her that," Noel says. "She knows what to do. She knows when to push her nose in and say 'Come and stroke me'; and she knows when to sit there and say, 'You can just look at me.' She senses when people are very ill, and, in other contexts, she knows when people are afraid of dogs.

"She'll sit at their feet, look them straight in the eye, as if to say: 'You are afraid of me, but in five minutes' time you will be stroking me.' And they do."

AT BURRSWOOD, patients can specifically ask to see Marnee on the day that she is in, and mostly everyone does. "Obviously, we have our regulations and compliance and infection procedures, but nurses will facilitate Noel and Marnee to go wherever they would be appreciated," Ms Owen says. "We really like having them around. They happily roam about, and don't intrude where it's not appropriate."

For Ms Austin, that means never disturbing a sleeping patient; so she'll tap on the door and open it very quietly. The dog will also sense the situation. As Ms Austin engages the patient in conversation, Marnee will first sit, and then edge closer and closer.

"People will put their hand out, and you can see fingers stroking in the fur. If they're particularly keen to see the dog, and bend over and almost hug her, I'll ask 'Have you had dogs of your own?' And out it will all come," Ms Austin says. "Every visit is different: a person may be well one week, and not so well the next." 

THE dog's presence is particularly valued in end-of-life care, a journey with a patient that Ms Owen describes as a real privilege and Ms Austin as a very special sort of ministry. "We would only go into one of those rooms if they have a nurse with them; but if we know the person has loved the dog, we will go in, and the nurse will just lift the patient's hand and place it on the dog's head. The dog remains motionless. You can see that there is absolute feeling and reaction here," Ms Austin says.

She recalls one patient in Burrswood whom she knew very well, and who was blind.

"We used to go and see her, and the dogs would put their heads on the bed, so that she could feel where they were. And she would put her hand out, and feel round their eyes and ears so that she knew exactly which bit of the dog she was touching.

"I went up one day, and could see that this lady was very, very ill. Marnee took one step inside the door, and lay down and refused to go any further."

The dogs sense death, too. Ms Austin recalls a regular visit to see a patient at Crowborough Hospital, when the dog, "Marnee's great-great-great grandmother", refused to turn left to go as usual to the room. "As I was struggling to get her up, the matron came and said: 'I'm so sorry we weren't able to get in touch with you, but Edna died an hour ago.' That dog knew."

Ms Austin visits care homes and hospices, and works with dementia patients; but going to Burrswood is different from any of her other visits, she says.

"Not everybody who goes there is a Christian, but there is a special atmosphere, a feeling which you experience the minute you go down the drive, and which is all over the grounds and the hospital. The dogs feel it as well, and love going there - it's a closely knit campus environment, all underpinned by prayer.

"Everything we do has to go towards the whole person, which is the underlying principle of the establishment. It's ministry in a very real sense." 

PAT was founded in 1983, the vision of the late Lesley Scott-Ordish, who recognised the level of trauma experienced by elderly people who had to leave their pets behind when they went into a resid-ential home.

The Royal College of Nursing endorsed the therapeutic effect of patting a dog, and encouraged her to set up what began as Pat Dogs. The book For Love of Dogs, pub-lished in 1997, the year she died, chronicled 20 years of research into how and why animal companionship can affect people's health and well-being, and she described it as "a tribute to all the lovely dogs who comfort and uncomplainingly love us".

The organisation, which make no charge for its services, and relies on donations and fund-raising, has about 4500 active PAT dogs and 108 PAT cats at work in the UK. They visit half a million bedsides a year, and also work in schools, where children who struggle with reading, and are reluctant to read to an adult, will confidently read to a dog.

It isn't hard to see why the unconditional love offered by a dog fits in so well with the Christian ethos of Burrswood and its declared aim: "To keep the love of Christ at the heart of care, and to be a sign of the Kingdom of God in a hurting world." 

IT ALSO touches those who do not come to Burrswood specifically for that ethos. Katie O'Brien, whose nomination helped win Marnee her award, is a young woman whose extreme phobia of hospitals had prevented her seeking treatment, and who was in severe pain and distress when she came, on recommendation and very reluctantly, to Burrswood.

She wrote in that nomination: "This hospital seemed different, as it came over as being very supportive and caring. . ." But fearful of every passing footstep, she still remained deeply anxious and sleepless, until one day when, "poking round the door was a nose, then a big smile, and then beautiful big eyes which were so delighted and happy to see me. Everything went into slow motion as this gorgeous golden dog came closer and closer to me - yes, to me!"

She goes on to describe Marnee's visits as the highlight of her week, the presence that kept her going through the rough days in partic-ular, and which enabled her to "once again feel some happiness despite the pain, and to feel hope once again.

"Time would stop, pain would stop, as you felt her love and gentleness. She was such a blessing to me as I would feel her unconditional love."

The hospital is held in prayer by many supporters, notably the worldwide Burrswood Fellowship, some of whom pray every day for a particular room or who follow the prayer diary issued every three months by the hospital. It has res-ident Anglican chaplains alongside ministry from Roman Catholic and Free Church ministers.

"A huge amount of healing is taking place right under our noses," a Burrswood patient is quoted as saying. As Marnee demonstrates, some of those noses are cold and wet.

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