Cincinnati Children's Hospital to unite critically ill children and their pets with new facility

CINCINNATI - Cincinnati Children's Hospital will be the first hospital in the nation to unite critically ill children and their pets under one roof.

In an initiative started by Children's Hospital doctor John Perentesis and a local organization, CancerFree KIDS, a simple idea snowballed into action.

When Perentesis visited Children's Hospital in Alberta, Canada, a few years ago, he fell in love with a pet-visiting facility that had been incorporated by the hospital to unite sick children with their beloved pets.

Perentesis and CancerFree KIDS founder and executive president, Ellen Flannery, had a conversation about the facility and what it would mean to the patients.

"He really wanted a facility. He mentioned it [to me] and said that it was on a wish-list of his," Flannery said.

Funding for the pet facility was an issue that put the project on the back burner for a few years. While Flannery and her board were thinking about objectives for CancerFree KIDS last year, however, she remembered what Perentesis mentioned to her.

"We did research to determine what the value is to have your pet around," Flannery said. "We became convinced that children should absolutely have this [facility]. Anyone should have this."

Countless research studies have been done since the 1960s that prove the link between the interaction with pets and the emotional well-being of people, Flannery said.

The board took the next step by applying for a grant through Impact 100, an organization of women that give money aiming to improve the community.

After a presentation by the board to Impact 100, the women voted on which organization to fund, and CancerFree KIDS came away with a $107,500 grant to kick-start the project.

"We are so excited because it will be the first in the country," Flannery said. "It's exciting, too, because we have also committed to fund research to share the outcome of the facility with other pediatric hospitals to create more pet centers."

More than 5,000 children spend more than a week at Children's Hospital each year and the average stay is 22 days, with many staying for a much longer duration.

"One [Children's Hospital patient] had been in the hospital for 180 days without a chance to see his beloved dog," Flannery said. "Stories like this truly [are] more than just putting a smile on a kid's face; it's about helping them get better. And we plan to fund the research to prove it."

Another Children's patient, Jessica Elam, picked out a new puppy, Sierrah, not long after she was diagnosed with cancer in 2001.

"Sierrah immediately curled up next to her. The bond grew deeper throughout Jessica's eight relapses from cancer and upon the news that Sierrah had lymphoma cancer and would share the same chemotherapy schedule," according to information released on the Children's Hospital Intranet.

Jessica would go through treatments at Children's for weeks at a time and longed to have her dog by her side.

"Pets have always been a big thing in my life. I even used to wish on ladybugs. My wish was always ‘please let me get better,'" Jessica said in the hospital's story.

Due to a simple idea, a committed community and a generous grant, Jessica will not be the only child touched by this project.

Children's Hospital has agreed to help design, build and take responsibility for running, staffing and maintaining the facility.

"This is just one thing that makes Cincinnati Children's such a stellar organization and shows what a great job they do for the children and our community," Flannery said.

The target date for the pet facility opening is June 1, 2013.

"It's a really good way to bring joy to a child that is going through a traumatic time," Flannery said.

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