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A healing paw for hospice patients

Hospice patient gets home visits from a four-legged friend as part of 'quality of life' care

Posted: August 20, 2009 9:07 p.m.
Updated: August 21, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Margaret Malch, left, receives visits with Jess up to twice a week. Jess is accompanied by owner Linda Provenzano, right.

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When Margaret Malch, 80, of Mission Hills, was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease five years ago, she received a unique prescription to cope: weekly visits from Jess, a two-year old border collie and certified animal-assisted activities dog.

"I can't get out much because of my oxygen tank. Jess' visits give me something to look forward to. She has a calming affect on me," Malch said.

According to Elizabeth Stratton, the volunteer coordinator for the hospice program at Panorama City's Kaiser Permanent who referred Malch for animal-assisted activities, research studies bear out Malch's claims.

"Pets are very soothing and distracting. Stroking and petting pets calms patients and have been proven clinically to lower blood pressure. It takes them away from their worries, especially worries about their health," Stratton said.

Handled by owner Linda Provenzano of Valencia, Jess' duties consist primarily of sitting on the couch and letting patients pet her.

Like all dogs used in Kaiser's hospice program, Jess is registered by D.E.L.T.A. Society, an organization founded in 1977 whose mission is to "help lead the world in advancing human health and well-being through positive interactions with animals."

Registration requirements for D.E.L.T.A. include passing a program team evaluation with exercises ranging from accepting a friendly stranger to walking through a crowd to reaction to distractions and other dogs. Jess is the second of Provenzano's dogs to be registered through D.E.L.T.A. Her golden retriever, Laci, served as an animal-assisted therapy dog for more than a decade at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital, Summerhill Retirement Villa, and several other Santa Clarita Valley locations before her death this June at age 12.

Though border collies are usually known for being extremely active, young Jess was a natural for the job, as Provenzano illustrated.

"She loves to lay and cuddle with people. When she's in the yard or at the park, she'll run and play like any other young dog, but when Jess is visiting with patients, she's very mellow," Provenzano said. "Every dog is different. Laci loved visiting from person to person but Jess is a one person dog. I have a hard time getting her off the couch. She wants to stay."

Malch concurred.

"Jess looks up at me every once in a while, like ‘I hope you're still here,'" she said with a smile.

While Malch is a former dog owner, animal assisted therapy is offered to all Kaiser hospice patients who have been assessed as having a need.

"Sometimes a social worker or nurse might think that a particular patient might have anxieties and not enough people in their life, such as family, to visit and socialize with. They determine that animal assisted activity would be beneficial for those patients," Stratton said. "Some may think it's silly, others might say ‘I'm not a dog person,' so those patients would be assigned a volunteer without a pet. But those who love pets love the idea. They light up and can't wait for the pet and volunteer to visit."

Prior to meeting Malch, Provenzano received a full day's training at Kaiser to find out what hospice means (the definition is "care designed to give supportive care to people in the final phase of a terminal illness and focus on comfort and quality of life, rather than cure,") the function of a hospice volunteer, and how to handle confidentiality issues.

"I always explain to volunteers that it's a very intimate thing to spend time with a terminally ill patient. We want them to give our patients as much comfort and nurturing as they can," Stratton said. "Animal assisted activities give them a little extra added love."

Providing animal assisted activities also adds to the quality of Provenzano's life.

"It gives me a lot of pleasure to see patients enjoy time with my dog," she said. "That's why I do animal assisted activity. It changes most people's attitude for the better to have a dog around."

Malch, a former Disney employee and a widow for more than 20 years, likes to break out a photo album filled with images of holidays and special occasions for visitors.

Many of the photos from the last two years include her four-legged friends decked in D.E.L.T.A. vests.

There's Malch sitting next to Barkley, a towering brindle Great Dane, Christmas decorations in the background or Malch next to a flaming birthday cake with Laci by her side, both sporting ear to ear grins.

Malch's primary caregiver, Christine Yumul, notices a big change with her charge whenever Linda and Jess visit.

"Margaret's very happy when the dog is here. Everyone is," she said. "These dogs give strength to the patient and they forget about their sickness for a little while."

For more information on animal assisted activity, visit


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