Healing Paws

Animal assisted therapy helped motivate and lift the spirits of animal lover Destiny Fallas during her rehabilitation from transverse myelitis.

When Destiny Fallas came down with a cold last fall, her parents didn’t think much of it at first. But within 24 hours, Destiny lost the ability to talk, swallow, or eat. After being admitted to the hospital, she continued to worsen and became completely paralyzed.

What her parents thought was a cold virus turned out to be transverse myelitis—a rare neurological disorder caused by inflammation of the spinal cord. After two months in intensive care, she was transferred to Kennedy Krieger for rehabilitation.

It was difficult being away from home during her hospitalization and rehabilitation, and Destiny desperately missed her cat, Smokey. So when she found out about the Institute’s animal assisted therapy program in which dogs interact with patients during therapy, she was excited.

Destiny regained movement in her legs and regained her voice, but still needed therapy to strengthen her weakened arms. The opportunity to pet a therapy dog motivated her to move her arm without thinking. Brushing the dog, giving her treats, and throwing a ball were all fun activities that were incorporated into her therapy. Destiny loved the dogs and the therapy, and showed steady improvement.

“Whenever the therapists told her the therapy dogs were coming, she would smile and couldn’t wait to go to therapy,” says Angela Fallas, Destiny’s mother. “Every day, we saw big improvements—she would say ‘Look mom, now I can do this, now I can do that!’”

Aside from being a powerful motivator, the presence of a dog can lift children’s moods and give them something to focus on outside of themselves. Research has long established that being around animals can lower blood pressure and provide stress relief. A dog can help bring a sense of well-being to children in the inpatient unit.

“For a lot of kids like Destiny, who have pets at home, it brings a sense of normalcy,” explains Lisa Rones, Destiny’s occupational therapist.

Angela agrees. “When she saw the pets in animal assisted therapy, it brought back good memories for her and brought out a smile again,” she says. “The dogs were very calm and let her pet them. She loved that. The dogs really made a difference.”

Destiny returned home able to walk and talk, thanks to a little help from the Institute’s team of four-legged friends and their handlers, including Stephanie Cooper Greenberg and her therapy dog, Mattilda.

“As dog owners, we know how much happiness our dogs bring us,” Greenberg says, “and there is no greater joy than sharing our dogs with others, especially children with disabilities.”

“As dog owners, we know how much happiness our dogs bring us, and there is no greater joy than sharing our dogs with others, especially children with disabilities.”

– Stephanie Cooper Greenberg, volunteer for the Animal Assisted Therapy program and Kennedy Krieger Board of Directors member

Watch a Video of Animal Assisted Therapy

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