Six days after a dune buggy accident left Christian Maynard partially paralyzed, he entered Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Program. Physically, mentally, geographically, it was a daunting new world for the 16-year-old Floridian.
“At first, it was scary,” Christian says. “Not being able to do anything for yourself, being put in a completely different situation. Everything was hard at that point.”
Christian says of all Shepherd Center’s staffers, there was one caretaker who particularly stood out – the 2-year-old with a light yellow coat of hair.
“It was really comforting having Frosty around,” Christian says of the yellow Labrador, who has quickly become a well-loved member of Shepherd Center’s fourth-floor SCI rehabilitation team. “They even let him get in bed with me. I have four dogs at home, and I missed them a lot. Frosty was a pet I could be with while I was there.”
Frosty did more than provide a comforting presence for Christian. To work on Christian’s fine motor skills, Shepherd’s therapists had Christian brush Frosty’s hair. Games of fetch helped Christian build up his hand and arm strength.
“He’s a real calm dog,” Christian says. “He helped me start engaging. He helped with everything. He’s just a good dog to have by your side.”
Christian was also a great teacher for Frosty. That’s because Frosty’s first day on the job at Shepherd Center was Jan. 30 – about a month into Christian’s three-plus-month stay there. Frosty and his fellow four-legged co-worker, Bentley, were brought to the hospital to serve as comforters and therapy assistants for patients in the SCI program.
Dogs are no strangers to Shepherd Center; they have frequently been brought in by other groups to visit with patients and to receive training. But the hospital had never directly “employed” them before.
“I saw how the patients and even the staff responded to the dogs who visited before,” says Rebecca McCallum McWalters, a nurse in the SCI program. “It was a remarkable sight to see everyone light up. And I thought, ‘This would be great to have all the time.’”
She pursued the idea along with SCI physical therapist Beth Sasso. The two connected with the Orlando center of Canine Companions for Independence and wrote essays applying to become dog handlers at Shepherd Center.
After a week of intense training with the dogs in Orlando, Sasso and McWalters brought Frosty and Bentley to Atlanta in January. Frosty was assigned to nurse duty with McWalters. “He’s very laid-back,” she says. “He will sit there and let you pet him all day. They knew Frosty would be good with me because he would have a lot of downtime while I was with patients.”
Nurse Rebecca McCallum McWalters demonstrates the skills of therapy dog Bentley.
Bentley was assigned to work alongside Sasso during her physical therapy rounds. “He’s pretty much the exact opposite of Frosty,” Sasso says with a laugh. “Bentley’s ready to play at all times. He’s well suited to help with physical activities.”
Already, each dog has embraced his respective role. Bentley loves the gym, and Sasso schedules canine therapy into patients’ scheduled rehabilitation sessions. He is the physical helper to Frosty’s emotional comforter. Each responsibility suits the dog’s personality perfectly.
Teenagers and adults alike seek out quality time with Shepherd Center’s paw-padded assistants. Often, patients’ family members look forward to the dogs’ entrance as much as the patients do.
Sasso and McWalters have noticed their fellow employees’ love for the dogs, too. “The therapy staff loves Bentley,” Sasso says. “People visit me on a daily basis now, and I know they’re not always coming just to see me! You can’t see him and not smile.”
“The nurses on my floor repeatedly say that when Frosty appears, the stress level immediately goes down,” McWalters adds. “He brings a calm, a peace to the floor that wasn’t there before. We have always been close-knit, but he brings so much joy and happiness.”
Christian says he saw that during his time there, too. “Everybody was always wanting to play with the dogs,” he says. “They just changed the mood of everyone.” Today, Christian is back home in Florida. He is getting stronger and going to outpatient rehabilitation in Orlando. The sessions with Frosty helped, he says; he can move his hands completely now.
McWalters remembers how close Frosty and Christian became. “Frosty spent a lot of time with him. Just being near him, lying in bed with him, because he was going through a lot of uncomfortable procedures while he was here.”
She thinks that unconditional love and devotion is what a lot of patients covet, particularly while wrestling with the physical and emotional trauma of their situation.
“I think another reason why these dogs are so loved by our patients is they don’t see their injuries, their scars,” McWalters says. “Frosty and Bentley love them regardless of what they can or cannot do. And being with Frosty each day, I see that he doesn’t care how long it takes them to get their arms ready to pet him. He just loves having their love.”
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 900 inpatients, 575 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year.