Helping the healing through heeling
Post Independent Staff
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. ” Sandi Jaffrey and Boomer are just the kind of visitors you’d like to have if you were in the hospital. They’re friendly and, at least in Boomer’s case, furry.
Boomer, a golden retriever and Sandi, his person, are partners. Officially, they’re part of a program called Heeling Partners that brings dogs and their handlers into Valley View Hospital rooms to brighten the day for patients.
They’re an unlikely pair, however. Sandi is a petite woman with a brilliant smile and Boomer is 75 pounds of wiggling golden retriever. Sandi insists that her boisterous companion is quiet in the hospital.
“Boomer is one of the best hospital dogs,” Sandi said. “You see how wild he is now, but in the hospital something happens, he becomes calm. He loves to visit the patients.”
In fact, he’s so intent on being on his best behavior, “after an hour in the hospital, he’s exhausted and wants to go home,” she added.
Sandi comes by her unusual calling naturally. As a physician’s assistant, she administers her husband Ira’s medical practice, Western Slope Oncology, at Valley View Hospital.
She became involved in the Heeling Partners program when it began six years ago at Valley View as part of the hospital’s Plane Tree initiative. Plane Tree, Sandi explained, is a non-traditional method to make patients more comfortable.
The program now has eight dog-human teams that visit patients at Valley View.
Boomer was certified about a year later. Sandi and Boomer went through the training together when he was a year old.
“We are a team. As handler you have to be able to recognize a dog’s needs,” Sandi said, and be able to coach the dog.
The dogs must be proficient in basic obedience commands of “come, sit, and stay,” she said. They also have to take the “funny smells,” noise and activity of a busy hospital in stride.
They’ve been visiting patients at Valley View for five years.
“It’s been fun,” Sandi said.
One of her fondest memories about their visits was a chance encounter in the hospital. She and Boomer were walking down a hallway when a family stopped her and asked if she and Boomer could visit their mother who was a geriatric patient.
“She was semi-comatose. She had all kinds of IVs,” Sandi said. Boomer got up very carefully on the foot of her bed.
“He was so sensitive. He crawled on his belly and put this nose under her hand,” she said.
The woman didn’t open her eyes, but patted the dog. Everyone in the room was crying.
“It’s those heart-touching moments” that make the visits rewarding, Sandi said.
The dog visits often prompt the patients to remember their own dogs.
“It’s a great way of bringing a piece of the outside world into a scary place,” she said.
Boomer is also in the Paws to Read program that brings dogs into the Garfield County libraries where kids read to them. It’s a unique way to get children to read and has been shown to help their self-confidence, Sandi said. They also come to the library more often.
A native of New Hampshire who grew up on a dairy farm, Sandi met Ira when she was working for Lederle, a large pharmaceutical firm in New York state.
He had just started his practice treating patients with cancer. They married and she ran the office. Sixteen years ago Sandi developed breast cancer.
“It was extremely strange. My first thought was I was going to die,” she said. The experience “actually changed my career. Now I sit down with patients and we can really talk about chemotherapy.”
Just at the time Sandi was first diagnosed, she and Ira had gotten a four-months-old golden retriever.
On the days when she came back home from chemo, “he would come up on the bed and snuggle,” and that gave her great comfort.
Then Ira’s practice got bigger and bigger and the couple felt they had to scale down their lives. Their son was living in Denver and then moved to New Castle when his architectural work brought him there. Ira and Sandi also fell in love with the area and decided to move to the valley in 1998.
Not to be idle, they also set up an oncology practice in Glenwood Springs.
Rural living ” they have a ranch outside Basalt ” has given her free rein to indulge her love of animals. Sandi is also a horse lover and a new convert to draft horses. She has a two-year-old Shire ” the largest of the draft breeds ” named Truman and a colt named Oliver.
Post Independent, Glenwood Springs Colorado CO
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