Happy Volunteer Week: Meet Michelle & Carina!

In celebration of National Volunteer Appreciation Week, we sat down with Pet Therapy volunteers Michelle Cutrali and her precious pup, Carina, who have been bringing smiles to patients and families at Connecticut Children’s for more than 5 years!

What made you decide to become a volunteer?
I took Carina, aka “Freshy Pants” to agility class with high hopes of her being the next Animal Planet star. I thought it would be easy since she was very fast, low to the ground and loved to fetch. All that she had to do was run down a lane, jump a few hurdles, grab a ball and bring it back. Easy right? Carina figured out that it was faster to go around the hurdles to fetch the ball than it was to jump over them. Needless to say, we weren’t asked back to agility class!

It was at this point, where I looked at her and said, “You need a job!” I knew how much she loved children and I wanted to put in a consistent effort in giving back to my community. This was a perfect fit!

As a Pet Therapy Volunteer here at Connecticut Children’s, what are some of your primary responsibilities? 
Carina and I try to make each visit engaging and as interactive as possible. We usually visit the 8th floor. Each visit starts out by Carina checking for crumbs under the bed, meeting the parents and the patient. We talk about the patient’s pets and listen to their stories.

Also, Carina loves to snuggle! If the patient wishes, she will snuggle up in bed with them or she will sit at their feet on the floor waiting for belly rubs. She loves belly rubs!
Carina has a number of entertaining stories that I share with the patients and families that always makes them smile. On many occasions, I will ask the patient if they would like to take the dog for a walk. Carina is notorious for the many smiles that she gets for guiding a wheelchair through the halls like a sled dog!

Every patient visit ends with tricks. Carina loves to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ and her famous dance moves are inspired by Beyoncé. It’s a great feeling to see the endless smiles that a singing and dancing dog can put on kids, families, staff and admin.

What do you love most about being a Pet Therapy Volunteer here at the Medical Center?
The smiles! For us, it’s all about how we pay it forward. Our patients and families miss their pets during their stay. Our visit gives them an outlet to share stories about their loved ones and some much needed one-on-one time with a dog. Sometimes, the only way to help a child is to bring in that dog that will make them giggle, laugh and for a very short time forget why they’re there.img_7886

Why do you believe Pet Therapy is so important to our patients and families?
We have been fortunate to assist in different forms of therapy with many children at Connecticut Children’s. Those children who have difficulty walking were more motivated when holding a leash and walking the dog. Walking the dog mentally stimulated them and they walked further than expected.

We have done special visits to acclimate children who were victims of dog bites. These visits are highly sensitive and involves a great level of trust from parents who wish to have their children comfortable with dogs soon after their incident. It’s amazing to see the resilience of these kids and after 45 minutes of a visit they are hugging and kissing the dog.

We get so many smiles in the PICU! Carina is the smallest of our Pet Therapy dogs and I can lift her up to bring her eye level to the children in the PICU. It’s great to see their eyes light up as soon as that dog comes close to them.

Child Life makes a great effort to accommodate the emotional needs of patients and families, as does the ArtReach program, staff and volunteers! We have been called in to do special visits for those children who miss their dog and need a little extra attention. The smile that Carina can put on that kid’s face is priceless!

What would you say to someone interested in volunteering at Connecticut Children’s?
Do it! Embrace the hundreds of smiles and prepare for the few heavy hearts. It’s the most emotional roller coaster you can go on and the most rewarding thing you can ever do!

Feel free to share anything else!
There are so many patient stories that I can think of to share, but this one stands out. We were volunteering in the Emergency Department with Paula from Child Life. Paula had a 10 year old boy that was in need of an IV and petrified of needles. He barricaded himself in the corner of his room under a blanket and surrounded by chairs to be impenetrable. Paula called us into the room and Carina walked under the chairs, put her nose under the blanket and completely surprised the boy. He wasn’t expecting a dog in the ED. Carina was able to ease his fears and within 15 minutes, we were able to have him on the bed and prepped for his IV while he was holding Carina’s paw for comfort.

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