MEXICO CITY – A small 3-year-old dog, a pug, is playing an important role at a Mexican hospital to help healthcare personnel relieve the stress and anxiety of their long, exhausting days filled with daily deaths from the coronavirus.
Two pairs of booties, protection goggles and a small green waterproof “raincoat” make up the uniform of Harley, who at least every third day visits the health care workers at the November 20 National Medical Center, one of the public hospitals specifically designated to treat COVID-19 cases.
Harley’s owner, Dr. Lucia Ledesma Torres, who is responsible for canine therapy at the hospital, said that his job is to simply be with medical personnel who have scheduled consultations for psychological exhaustion, sleep problems, anxiety and symptoms of physical and work-related exhaustion – “better known as burnout,” she noted.
Therapy with animals is a tool that has become popular in some hospitals, including the November 20 center, and it’s also used in pediatric oncology since it helps patients reduce their levels of anxiety, distress and depression.
In a chat with EFE, Ledesma said that mental health is an “historically forgotten” issue, especially among health care professionals.
However, in situations of collective crisis is when the importance of having pre-prepared strategies to deal with these kinds of problems becomes clear.
She said that especially during the ongoing fight against the coronavirus – which in Mexico has infected at least 49,000 people and killed 5,177 – medical personnel have been the victims of significant psychological problems.
That’s where “One-Eyed Harley,” who lost an eye in an accident a little over a year ago, has been playing a key role since he began working as a therapy dog at the hospital in February to counteract – at least partially – the psychological stress doctors and nurses are feeling due to the fear of becoming infected with the sometimes deadly virus and/or having to remain apart from their families for fear of infecting them.
“The responses we’re seeing have exceeded our expectations. He had expected a favorable response but not on the level we’re having. The personnel react with surprise, curiosity, they play with him, they make videocalls (with him) to their relatives and that makes them feel closer to them. It’s an immediate effect,” she said.
Harley, who begins his workdays at 5 am, meets with health care personnel to provide a few minutes of affectionate togetherness. He lets himself be held, petted and pampered by nurses, orderlies, paramedics and physicians who want to see him.
Ledesma, who is a specialist in neuropsychology, clinical psychology and psychopathology, said that the dog comes to the hospital before people begin their workshifts, since it’s right at that time that the biggest levels of stress among the personnel have been detected.
However, to be able to provide this kind of therapy, Ledesma said that animals must have certain characteristics such as a friendly disposition, allow people to get close to them, to be well-behaved, to learn quickly and to enjoy continuous social contact.
Despite the fact that Harley has almost three years of experience providing therapy to people with psychological and psychiatric problems, Ledesma acknowledged that this has been his most complicated project “due to the characteristics of the pandemic” and for which he had to receive some special training.
But she added that right from the start Harley has been able to “reduce the symptoms of anxiety and stress” among the hospital personnel.
So she did not rule out that at some point this kind of therapy could be introduced to other hospitals, although she admitted that this would be somewhat complicated because it requires an interdisciplinary team along with animals who have characteristics like Harley, who amid the turmoil has become one of the heroes fighting the pandemic.