Canine Comforts Children



Tucker and Dr. Wendi Hirsch make the rounds, visiting kids with cancer. Courtesy of Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children

Among the doctors, nurses and social workers who gather for the weekly oncology meeting at the Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children, one stands out the most. Tucker, the hospital’s Chief Canine Officer, and his handler, Dr. Wendi Hirsch, are part of the team of medical professionals who take care of some of the hospital’s sickest children.  If the doctor chairing the meeting misses a beat, Tucker leans over and gives him a big lick on the cheek. If a social worker reports on a particularly sad case, Tucker leaves his seat to support his colleague, laying his head on her lap and quietly nuzzling his friend.

“Tucker is pure love,” says Hirsch, as Tucker licks my hands and rubs at my feet during a recent interview. “He’s incredibly sensitive to people and insensitive to his environment.”

When a young cancer patient arrived on the ward recently for her routine chemo infusion, she didn’t want to be there.  The needles hurt and the drugs make her sick. She reluctantly took her seat in the brightly painted car-shaped wheelchair, her IV bags hung from the car’s antenna. Then Tucker showed up, jumping in the passenger seat next to her, and amidst giggles and cuddles, they headed down the hall.  All in a day’s work for Tucker, but a godsend for sick children, families and hospital staff who face down deadly monsters every day.

Kapiolani is one of only a handful of hospitals in the country to have a full-time facility dog on staff.  Volunteer programs with visiting therapy dogs are more common, but a full-time program required a lot of planning, training and hospital commitment.  And the right dog. 

A purebred Golden Retriever, Tucker was born for the job. Assistance Dogs of Hawaii on Maui founders, Will and Mo Maurer, train all types of service dogs — guide dogs for the blind, assistance dogs for those with disabilities — but a fully-trained facility dog requires a pretty special pup.  When they acquired two new puppies from a favorite Australian breeder some 10 years ago, the Maurers knew they had found him. 

“Tucker is bomb proof,” Hirsch says. “Nothing fazes him.”

Tucker joined the Kapiolani staff after 18 months of training and has been coming to work wearing his vest and hospital badge every day from that point on. 

When a Big Island toddler was stricken with leukemia some years ago, Tucker became his favorite companion, snuggling with him in bed for hours and standing outside the isolation room window waving to him when treatments prevented Tucker’s presence in the room.  When the little boy sadly passed, his family asked Tucker to attend his funeral, and every year since, Team Tucker has participated in the Big Island’s Relay for Life, in memory of the little boy who died so young.

Recognizing the dog’s impact, Hirsch found stuffed toy dogs that look just like Tucker. The medevac teams keep them on hand, giving one to each child being brought to the hospital from the Neighbor Islands. When the kids do arrive, the real Tucker greets them in the ER.  Tucker’s Facebook page includes dozens of photos of children, years past their treatments, still snuggling their stuffed Tucker doll.

A staff child psychologist, Hirsch sees first-hand Tucker’s impact. “Tucker comes in their rooms and all you have to do is watch the monitors,” she says. “Heart rates slow. Blood pressure drops. Tucker is good medicine.”

Kapiolani’s sick children and their families don’t need the monitors. The smiles and the cuddles tell the story.

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