UCSF’s 15-pound therapist

UCSF’s 15-pound therapist
Izzy the poodle brings joy to patients who need comfort, inspiration or just a cuddle

Marisa Lagos, Chronicle Staff Writer

Saturday, May 19, 2007
Her employee ID badge reads “Izzy Adog,” which makes her … Andrew Salas, 1, who has a severe immunodeficiency diseas… Linda Haycox and her 3-year-old daughter, Gianna, get a v… Izzy has been issued her own UCSF staff ID card, which wa… More…

An ad for the position would have read something like this: UCSF Children’s Hospital seeks therapist, cuddler and friend. Must be good-natured, fluffy, small, hypoallergenic and light in color, with some life experience. Female preferred.

Not just any dog would do, you see, to be hired as UCSF’s first full-time canine employee.

It was an idea that had been percolating for a while, said Lila Param, director of the hospital’s Center for Mothers and Newborns.

“I think what brought it to a head was this little girl in oncology who wanted so badly at the end of her life to have a dog,” she said.

When the staff arranged for the patient to bring in her own pooch, “it made such a huge difference for her and for everyone around her,” Param said.

But it’s too difficult for the hospital to work with every patient who wants to bring in a dog. So officials reached out to the San Francisco SPCA, which for years has brought mutts to visit the hospital.

Enter Izzy, a miniature poodle about 2 years old. A rescue dog from the streets of Fresno, she was being trained to help deaf people as part of the SPCA’s hearing dog program. But she didn’t like loud noises, such as phones, and about six months ago, her handlers decided Izzy might be a better fit at the hospital.

They knew that such a special position would require a special dog.

For starters, large dogs can intimidate some of the smaller patients. The successful candidate would also have to be able to handle the stress of the hospital and know when to adjust its energy level, taking cues from the patient.

Izzy, said trainer Francis Metcalf, was a perfect fit — in both size and nature.

The 15-pound pup’s aptitude stems from both her genes and her personality, he said. She’s sweet and high-energy — traits that help her deal with stress. Her breed grows hair instead of fur, meaning she’s hypoallergenic. She’s white, an innocuous color for patients who may shy away from darker pooches. And perhaps most important, poodles are known to be gentle but tough.

“They were groomed for so long, they are fine with being poked and prodded,” Metcalf said recently as he tugged on Izzy’s curls. “It was bred into them.”

All of these traits are necessary at a hospital that serves kids of all ages and levels of need — some of whom, like 2-year-old leukemia patient Punaofo Filimaua of San Francisco, want to pat and squeeze Izzy; and others, such as 20-year-old cancer patient Patrick McGill, who simply want to cuddle.

“I think it’s good for a dog to come visit patients, because it gets kind of lonely,” said 14-year-old stroke patient Ryan McCraw, who has been at UCSF for more than two months, as Izzy sat on his lap recently. “I never had a poodle, but I like her. I can’t stop petting her.”

It’s been a long road since November, when Izzy was chosen as the lead candidate — and not all of it has been as easy as sitting around looking cute.

Just like any other prospective employee, Izzy had to come in for an “interview,” this one with about a half-dozen members of the UCSF staff. The intensive screening included Jim O’Brien, the registered nurse and patient care manager who would become Izzy’s caretaker.

“We didn’t want a dog — we wanted the dog,” O’Brien said. The staff was soon convinced, and the training began, at the SPCA, then at the hospital. But first, she had to get a name tag. The security staff was puzzled about how to log someone lacking simple information such as a Social Security number into the university ID system. They found a compromise by giving her a last name: Adog.

Now, Metcalf comes to UCSF to train Izzy two days a week. To the untrained eye, the process looks uncomplicated, but he is actually working on nuances.

For example, as the trainer walked her around the hospital recently, he was getting her used to the sights and sounds of the place — the floor waxer, the grating sound of curtains being drawn in hospital rooms, the elevator.

And, of course, to all the attention.

Izzy is like a little rock star at the Children’s Hospital. Nurses stop and pet her, kids squeal from across the room and even the sickest patients manage a smile when they see the fuzz-ball approaching.

One-year-old Andrew Salas was particularly charmed. Born with severe combined immunodeficiency — also known as bubble boy disease — Andrew had a bone marrow transplant at 2 weeks old and is still dealing with side effects. At the hospital, he must be separated from other patients by a glass partition, and nurses said he doesn’t always engage as much as other kids his age.

But when Izzy pressed her little paws up to the glass, Andrew lit up.

So did the nursing staff in Andrew’s room, as well as those across the street at the Children’s Hospital ICU, where 3-year-old Gianna Haycox was being treated for a kidney disease called nephrotic syndrome. Gigi, as her mom calls her, has been in the hospital for eight weeks and was thrilled to see Izzy.

“This is therapy for us as well,” said nurse Kali Jones. “To see her smile like that is the best … and it’s so good for her mom as well.”

Hospital officials say Izzy isn’t just for the kids. The mother of an infant recently embraced Izzy when she was unable to hold her own sick child. And Linda Barbra, whose 8-year-old has diabetes and is being tested for other illnesses, broke down as she cuddled the pup a few weeks ago, saying she missed her own dogs back in Shasta Lake (Shasta County). Her daughter, meanwhile, was uninterested.

In her new role, Izzy will serve as a distraction when kids are having scary procedures — and as a dummy on which kids can “act out” their operations. She’ll help motivate rehabilitation patients — who doesn’t want to take a dog for a walk? — and be a “therapist” for lonely ones.

Mostly, though, she will just be there, a calm presence in a place that can be full of both hope and despair.

E-mail Marisa Lagos at mlagos@sfchronicle.com.

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