Therapy Dog Brings Smiles to Sick Children, Medical Students

Therapy Dog Brings Smiles to Sick Children, Medical Students

At Nemours Children's Hospital, Palmer Vorkapich lights up during a visit from Ion, a therapy dog owned by College of Medicine student Christa Zino.

Ion the 2-year-old boxer lies belly up as Palmer Vorkapich gives him rubs. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the dog was smiling.

“He’s so soft,” said the 6-year-old from her bed at Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando. “I love him.”

Ion is a certified therapy dog. His owner, UCF second-year-medical student Christa Zino, brings him to the hospital most Friday evenings to visit sick children.

“To see their faces light up is priceless,” she said.

Despite the rigors and “craziness” of medical school, Zino finds time to visit each week – even during final exams this month – because she remembers what it was like to be in the hospital for months at a time. When she was about 3 years old, Zino spent a better part of the year in and out of hospitals while doctors tried to figure out what was making the Apopka native sick.

“The only thing I remember with fondness about that year is the therapy dog visits,” she said. “And so I wanted to do something for children now, before I become a doctor and can help in other ways.”

The visits remind Zino why the 18-hour days of school and studying are all worth it.

“When I think it is too much and that I can’t handle everything, this reminds me that I have no problems and why I want to be a pediatric surgeon,” said the 27-year-old. “I want to help children like the ones I see every week.”

Faculty at the UCF College of Medicine applaud Zino’s efforts, and there’s even a bonus for the school.

When Ion isn’t visiting children at Nemours or chasing his Chihuahua roommate at home, he’s lounging in the college’s Student Academic Support Services office. That’s where he keeps office hours two days a week for stressed out medical students to stop by for doggy rubs or kisses before heading to their next class.

Ion during his "office hours" at the UCF College of MedicineIon during his “office hours” at the UCF College of Medicine

For parents of children who spend extended time at Nemours for treatment of some of the most challenging conditions, the therapy dog visits are “magical.”

“She loves it when they visit,” said Katherine Vorkapich, Palmer’s mother, of Ion and the other 29 therapy animals registered to volunteer at Nemours.

Palmer is being treated for acute myeloid leukemia, also known as AML. The condition requires hospital stays of about a month after each session over a six-month stretch. The kindergartner and her family will be spending Christmas in the hospital this year.

“She just lights up,” Vorkapich said. “It’s a great change in the day. A lot of times, she doesn’t have visitors, so it is awesome they come in to see her.”

Nurses will stop Zino in the hallway and ask her to visit a patient’s room to help lift spirits, ease some stress before a procedure or simply hang out to help kick the blues that often hit when children are away from their homes.

Patients can also request a pet visit by tapping a button in the control console in their room. The console triggers an icon on the computer screen outside their room. As pet therapy handlers walk the halls, they know where to pop in for a visit.

“In my nine years at Nemours, I have seen over and over how our pet therapy dogs have a very special way of making children less anxious and often produce some smiles and giggles,” said Jill Mondry, director of volunteer services at Nemours. “They truly are important members of our care team.”

Ion seems to enjoy his job too. It’s a far cry from what destiny had originally planned for the pup, who Zino got from a rescue organization after he was turned over from someone out-of-state for not being aggressive enough to fight.

It’s obvious that Ion is a lover, not a fighter, Zino said.

“He gets so excited when his vest comes out. He knows where we are headed.”