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Massey welcomes a furry new addition to its Palliative Care Unit

Aug 16, 2017


In striving to provide the best possible care for their patients, the Palliative Care Unit at VCU Massey Cancer Center has added man’s best friend to their team. Two-year-old, fluffy, friendly facility dog Renny joined the staff in May.

The goal of palliative care is to relieve suffering of the chronically ill by managing pain and symptoms and addressing psychological, emotional and spiritual needs. Massey is an international award winner in palliative care, and one of just eight Palliative Care Leadership Centers in the U.S.

As the newest member of the team, Renny makes visits to any palliative care patient that would like to see her in order to provide comfort and support and help ease their anxiety. Renny complements the VCU Center for Human and Animal Interaction’s Dogs on Call program, but is different from other therapy dogs in the sense that she is devoted to Massey’s Palliative Care program and has received extensive additional training.

Jessica Gray, R.N., nurse manager of Massey’s Palliative Care Unit, is Renny’s supervisor and caregiver. Gray takes Renny to scheduled appointments with palliative care patients around the hospital in addition to directing her unscheduled time on the floor of the unit.

Even though Renny has just begun her work at Massey, Gray has already been able to see transformations in patients because of visits with Renny.

“I’ve seen patients who haven’t smiled in days or who won’t even wake up for their medications become alert and engaged when Renny enters their room,” says Gray. “She works with us to improve the psychological well-being of our patients; some even report less physical pain after spending time with her.”

During visits, Renny’s primary activity is “just being” with the patients, according to Gray. Renny is able to sit near patients or lay with them in bed, depending on the circumstances. Because of Renny’s extensive training and calm demeanor, she can even be positioned to lay with patients who have a complicated room set-up.

Renny was trained through Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a non-profit organization that provides highly trained assistance dogs free of charge to those with disabilities. CCI partners with professional breeders and organizes volunteers at locations throughout the US to raise the puppies and provide early training. Then, the dogs are sent to “puppy college” for advanced training once they reach 18 months. Finally, at a graduation ceremony they are paired with applicants like Gray from organizations like Massey.

Renny provides more than comfort. As a facility dog, she was specifically trained to provide structured, practical “task-oriented” interactions to groups of children and adults with disabilities in health care, education and other professional settings. Gray was required to undergo training as well, and she must re-certify every one to three years.

The response to Renny at Massey has been outstanding among patients, and staff have been equally excited about her arrival.

“Staff love petting Renny after a stressful day or event, and I think it makes them feel good when they see the emotional support she can provide to their patients,” said Gray. “Even colleagues in the other units welcome her, especially in the STICU (Surgical Trauma Intensive Care Unit), where we frequently visit for palliative care.”

Renny will continue working with Gray at Massey until she reaches about 10 years old, which is considered the accepted “working life” of a facility dog. She will then retire and live life like any other pet in Gray’s home.

“Having Renny in the Palliative Care Unit is something different that adds a lot to Massey and our ability to improve our patients’ quality of life,” Gray added. “I’m looking forward to improving people’s lives with her for many years.” 


Article by Savannah Smith, communications intern at VCU Massey Cancer Center

Written by: Massey Communications Office

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