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St. Jude Paws at Play to expand by four paws

By Mike O’Kelly

Puggle and Huckleberry of the St. Jude Paws at Play program will soon welcome a new facility dog to the hospital’s campus.

Puggle and Huckleberry of the St. Jude Paws at Play program will soon welcome a new facility dog to the hospital’s campus.

Two years ago this month, St. Jude Paws at Play pups Puggle and Huckleberry stepped their paws onto the hospital’s campus for the first time.

The facility dogs, who are also full-time employees, kicked off their first day of work with a Town Hall event hosted by St. Jude President and CEO James R. Downing, MD. Employees packed the auditorium to catch a glimpse of their new furry colleagues.

The world has changed drastically since then, but Puggle and Huckleberry have still made a huge impact throughout the clinics and hallways of St. Jude during that time. By working with their child life specialist handlers (Brittany Reed, Shandra Taylor and Ashley Carr), the dogs have helped patients cope with their treatment experiences by providing motivation and support.

When times are ruff

As the COVID-19 pandemic moved into the fall of 2020, Paws at Play partnered with the St. Jude Staff Resilience Center to provide a new service—employee support. 

Employees welcomed the visits, which were often timely and much needed. Janet Sellers, Staff Resilience Center manager, started joining the dogs and their handlers during the clinic stops. The center helps employees focus on caring for themselves by finding ways to deal with stress, burnout and compassion fatigue.

Employees laughed. Some cried. Others shared stories of their own pets, both living and departed. But the experience confirmed a thought Sellers had since the arrival of Puggle and Huckleberry in 2019—employees could benefit greatly from their own facility dog.

That idea becomes reality in September as the Resilience Center expands its outreach to welcome a new dog…and a new handler.

“We are excited to have a facility dog available for staff to help encourage people to ‘paws’ and practice a moment of self-care,” Sellers said. “Sometimes we are so busy, we need a reminder that it’s OK to take some time to breathe, laugh or have a conversation. The staff facility dog is really going to help us with that.”

Chaplain Kimberly Russell will serve as the new handler for the facility dog as the Resilience Center expands its efforts to support employees.

Chaplain Kimberly Russell will serve as the new handler for the facility dog as the Resilience Center expands its efforts to support employees.

An expanded focus on resilience

Just as Puggle and Huckleberry augment the care provided by their child life specialist handlers in a team-oriented approach, the Resilience Center’s new pup will do the same.

The task requires a handler who is adept at empathy, listening and providing support. That person was already walking the hallways of St. Jude—Kimberly Russell of Spiritual Care Services.

Russell, who joined St. Jude in 2013, has been a chaplain for the hospital’s Leukemia and Lymphoma Clinic and a consultant for the Infectious Diseases Clinic. In addition to working with patients, families and employees, Russell has integrated several programs into spiritual care—creating an annual Easter service, starting a Godly Play initiative and designing a spiritual intervention board that helps non-verbal patients express their spiritual needs and emotions.

“Kimberly’s new role in the Resilience Center will allow her to use her experience as a chaplain with a primary focus on employees,” Sellers said. “She has a skillset for non-judgmental listening and support—something we could all benefit from when faced with the challenges and stresses of life, whether personal or professional.”

Hospital chaplains have helped provide stability for employees experiencing uncertainty during the pandemic. The team in Spiritual Care Services will continue to provide that support while Russell expands her focus on employees with the help of her new canine colleague.

St. Jude is a diverse community. As chaplains, we all have similar faith backgrounds, but we care for each person where they are since our employees have different beliefs and practices,” Russell said. “Many employees need someone to help them process a difficult situation or cope with a loss.”

A life with dogs

Russell’s first experience with facility dogs came as a chaplain resident at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. She saw firsthand the effect dogs had on patients and staff. Early in her time at St. Jude, she wondered how a dog might benefit the St. Jude chaplain team. The St. Jude Child Life Program explored the option for years as well until the arrival of Puggle and Huckleberry in 2019.

“A lot of our work as a chaplain is presence—sitting, listening and cultivating a safe space. A dog can really help make that safe space happen more quickly,” Russell said.

Russell is a dog lover who has always been surrounded by furry friends. She’s the proud mother to Pepper, a 5-year-old mixed breed dog. Pepper is a trained therapy dog who Russell has taken on visits to hospice and children’s facilities in the Memphis area. 

When the new facility dog arrives at St. Jude, Russell will welcome not only a colleague, but a family member. The new dog will live with Russell and, of course, Pepper. Sellers will serve as the backup handler.

“I’m excited with this new role, and that I will still be able to provide care for direct patient providers,” Russell said. “But I will also have the ability and the time to focus our resources to care for our other employees in research and support areas as well.”

Coming soon…

Russell and Sellers traveled to the Canine Assistants service dog school in Milton, Georgia, recently to meet their new dog and participate in training. They will return to St. Jude September 27 for the dog’s first day at work.

The breed, gender and name of the dog remained a mystery until the first day of camp. Sellers and Russell have received clues on the name from the Canine Assistants team in the past week.

“With the addition of Kimberly and our facility dog, the Resilience Center will be able to expand to more areas of the hospital,” Sellers said. “We’re looking forward to continued collaborations with colleagues in research, administration and clinical areas as we work to support resilience.”