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Uno the
therapy dog

Chaplain's four-legged colleague
is on the job, helping children heal.

Clad in a green vest, the golden retriever lopes into Emma Anderson’s glass-enclosed hospital room at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

The shaggy blonde canine with deep brown eyes pauses at the foot of the bed and eyes the 5-year-old girl reeling in pain. Dressed in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle pajamas, she clutches her favorite pink floral blankie.

Robin Anderson, Emma’s mother, grows nervous. At nearly 70 pounds, Uno is a large dog. Emma is in a fragile state, her small body bandaged and connected by tubes and wires to a bank of blinking, beeping machines. She was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, which means the left side of her heart was critically under-developed, and she is recovering from her third heart surgery.

“You just watch,” says Samantha Clark, a chaplain at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Slowly Uno climbs onto Emma’s bed and stretches out beside her without touching a single tube or wire, adjusting so carefully as though moving in slow motion. He gently places his head on Emma’s pillow and stares into the child’s hazel eyes.

Emma’s pale face brightens into a smile.

Photo: Waiting to be examined is less tedious when Uno is on the scene. Uno comforts heart transplant recipient Phillip “Bronco” Reece, 9, of Woodstock.

Every day, Uno accompanies Clark at work, helping the chaplain provide spiritual and emotional support to patients and their families in Children’s Sibley Heart Center at the Egleston campus near Emory University. For two years they have made their rounds together, visiting patients and their families, as well as warmly greeting doctors and nurses.

Sometimes, when everything else seems to fall short, Uno is the one thing that can reach the sickest children.

“He has gotten kids out of bed when nothing else seems to work,” said Clark. “Sometimes it’s as easy as asking the child if they want to take Uno for a walk.”

Photo: Clark and Uno attend a worship service in the chapel with Phillip.

Uno’s presence often helps patients and families open up about the complex emotions surrounding a health crisis, she says.

“It is a lot less threatening to have some of those deep and painful conversations when you have a big furry friend at your side,” she says.

Therapy dogs first arrived at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta in 2009; there are currently 11 working at the hospital now.

Uno, the only puppy in his litter, was born in 2011 at an 18-acre farm in Milton run by Canine Assistants. The nonprofit organization trains service dogs and provides them to children and adults with special needs. When he was about 10 months old, Uno was identified as a good candidate for a hospital therapy dog because he wasn’t rattled by beeps and cords and wires.

He was trained in the Bond-Based Choice Teaching method, which focuses on developing a dog’s ability to process information rather than simply respond to commands. After a 11/2 years of training, he graduated from the program and was matched with Clark.

Uno happily wags his tail when Clark grabs his green work vest off a knob by the front door, signaling his work day has begun.

“He is the most excited employee at work on Monday morning,” she says.

Occasionally Uno’s enthusiasm will waver, especially around extremely sick patients in severe pain. In those instances, he walks toward the door or flops down on the floor near the patient’s bed. When that happens, Clark knows it’s time for Uno to take a break.

Photo: Uno and Clark (from left) enjoy a break at work with Izzy, family library coordinator Vandie Enloe, Lancelot and clinical nurse coordinator Shannon Luetkemeyer.

That means it’s time for him to romp in the grass on the hospital grounds with some of his canine colleagues. After a good run, he’s ready to get back to work, helping patients heal.

Accompanied by Clark (left), Uno is the center of attention at Camp Braveheart in Rutledge. The camp specifically serves children and teens who have heart disease or have undergone a heart transplant.

Three-year-old Aaron James Hagin, Savannah, waiting for a heart transplant, gives Uno some attention from his hospital bed.

Phillip “Bronco” Reece, 9, of Woodstock, holds hands with Uno at the Children’s Sibley Heart Center Egleston campus in Atlanta while cardiac sonographer Eric Lesser monitors his condition.

Uno lends support while Phillip waits for his heart transplant.

Clark and Uno join in the fun during the camp group photo while spending the week at Camp Braveheart.

Camp Braveheart, organized by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, is free, thanks to the support and donations by private foundations, corporations and individuals.

Click above to read more of our Personal Journeys.

HOW WE GOT THE STORY
AJC photographer Curtis Compton started working on this photo documentary in March, making several visits to the hospital and following Uno around on his duties. Compton also tagged along with Uno for a day at summer camp. The result is an intimate look at the life of a therapy dog that captures the warmth and joy Uno brings to patients at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com


ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER

Curtis Compton joined the AJC as a photo editor in 1993 before returning to the field as a staff photographer. Previously he worked for the Gwinnett Daily News, United Press International and the Marietta Daily Journal. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia and won a World Hunger Award for his coverage of the famine in Sudan.


ABOUT THE REPORTER

Helena Oliviero joined the AJC in 2002 as a features writer. Educated at the University of San Francisco, she previously worked for the Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Knight Ridder as a correspondent in Mexico. She has written more than a dozen Personal Journeys.


Go to www.choa.org/pettherapy for details about the therapy dog program at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
To donate to the nonprofit therapy dog program, go to www.choa.org/FundADog.