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Family Pet Center At Children's Hospital Brings Touch Of Home To Patients

Veterinarian Dr. Zara Boland and her dog Rhumba visiting a St. Louis Children’s Hospital patient in the Purina Family Pet Center.
Mary Butkus
Dr. Zara Boland and her dog Rhumba visit a St. Louis Children’s Hospital patient in the Purina Family Pet Center.

After an accident left 14-year-old Gavin Lain with a traumatic brain injury, he suffered everything from brain bleed to a pseudoaneurysm. His mother, Michele Lain, stayed with him during his entire 5½-month stay at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

“We didn't know from minute to minute if he was going to make it,” Lain said.

Gavin Lain interacts with his dog, Bella, at the Purina Family Pet Center while recovering from a traumatic brain injury at St. Louis Children's Hospital.
Michele Lain
Gavin Lain interacts with his dog, Bella, at the Purina Family Pet Center while recovering from a traumatic brain injury at St. Louis Children's Hospital.

After a monthlong drug induced coma, when doctors woke Gavin up for the first time since the accident, “He was scared,” Lain explained.

“Tears would just stream down,” she said. “He wasn't able to talk, [to use] normal words,” she said. “He would say things and … he knew exactly what he was saying in his mind, but that's not what was coming out of his mouth.

“We would ask him familiar things, like about his dog. His nurse would say: ‘What color is your dog? What is your dog's name?’ And he would start to mouth like, ‘buh’ for brown or ‘bee’ for Bella and little things like that.”

Bella, the family dog, was very important to Gavin. He had an entire photo board in his room dedicated to her.

“He would just light up when we would talk about her,” she added.

Most hospitals in the U.S. do not allow family members to bring in pets to see patients. St. Louis Children’s Hospital, however, is home to one of only four family pet centers in the world where families can bring their pet into the hospital to visit a patient.

The Purina Family Pet Center was the opportunity the Lain family needed. After several months apart, Lain was able to reunite Gavin and Bella.

“I loved it. For that hour, you forget you're in the middle of a hospital,” she said. “You can escape for a minute from what you have to deal with the other 23 hours of the day.”

For Gavin, the pet center allowed him to have a break from a rigorous therapy schedule.

“He would be excited and tell everybody, ‘I get to see my dog today,’ and it just gave him something familiar with home and [something] to look forward to,” she said. “He just loved it.”

In the five years the pet center has operated at Children’s, more than 500 patients have utilized the space to connect with their furry loved ones during hospital stays.

Sandra Lyn, manager of global pet behavior research at Nestlé Purina with a doctorate in psychology, told St. Louis on the Air that such centers require collaboration between animal behaviorists, physicians, hospital administrators, staff, “and the resources to maintain it.”

Lyn and her colleagues at Purina not only worked with Children’s to build the center, but they also published a journal article containing advice for other hospitals interested in a pet center of their own.

“We went ahead and shared that knowledge because we think it's important, but it does require resources, and commitment on the side of the hospitals,” Lyn said. “Hospitals have to have staff that do believe there is a role for pets in medical intervention. And they do have a role in terms of supporting [patient] rehabilitation.

“When you're in treatment, there are so many things that are new and scary and [there’s an] opportunity for fear, anxiety and resistance to wanting to continue. So if you bring in one of the most familiar positive elements in your life in your family, your dog or your cat, it's almost contagious when they come in and they're just bounding in; they're so happy to see you. It's like yawning — you can't help but respond in the same way back to them.”

Lyn said that dogs and cats are great at getting people to be playful, and that attitude increases their outcomes for things like physical therapy, in addition to being an overall mood booster during a difficult time.

“My dream is that we are going to see more of these [centers] in the future,” she added.

Michele Lain and Sandra Lyn join St. Louis on the Air

Gavin is now 15 years old, and this week marks one year since he left the hospital.

“He's doing amazing,” Lain said. “On the road to recovery, slow and steady, but he's getting there. … He needs assistance with some things. And whenever we're moving him around or get near him, [Bella] is right there, making sure [he’s OK].”

The Purina Family Pet Center at St. Louis Children's Hospital is available to patients with a hospital stay of five days or more. Only dogs and cats are allowed, and pets must be current on vaccinations and bathed before a visit.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.