GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The newest member of the American Medical Response team in Grand Rapids likes sticks, belly rubs and any shoestrings she can get her mouth around.
Meet Hope — AMR West Michigan’s future therapy dog who turned 3 months old on Friday.
“She’ll receive specialized training that will allow her to recognize stress and will actually seek out individuals and provide comfort,” explained one of her handlers, AMR Operations Supervisor Carl Hartman.
Most of Hope’s work will focus on AMR employees and other first responders in the area.
“Our medics have a very stressful job. And this is a minor thing that we can do to help take care of our people that take care of our community,” Hartman said.
Hope came to AMR through a program provided by its parent company, Global Medical Response. So far, it has deployed 28 therapy dogs. Hope is No. 26, but the first one working a third shift and the first in this region.
“The closest GMR therapy dog that was to Michigan was in Kansas when we initially applied for the program,” said AMR Operations Supervisor Dusty Vandermeer, another of Hope’s handlers.
Hartman and Vandermeer say they found Hope just north of Columbus, Ohio. She was the last of her litter.
“One of her brothers is actually a therapy dog in one of the hospitals down there,” said Vandermeer. “She was pretty excited to hear what her job was going to be because one of her brothers was doing the same thing.”
While Hope’s training starts March 20, she’s already helping AMR staff.
“We had her for less than a week when I had one of my medics have a violent encounter with a patient. I had Hope that night with me and when I responded to the hospital with my supervisor vehicle, I had Hope in the vehicle with me. So while I had to talk to my medic about that stressful event that she just dealt with, she got to sit in the vehicle, cuddling a puppy. And she was more focused on that puppy than the fact that she just went through a violent encounter,” explained Hartman.
Hope must master three or four courses, earn her Good Canine Citizen certification and pass an assessment by GMR’s therapy dog evaluation team before her work can start in earnest. Her handlers are also heading back to school for critical incident stress management training.
“The beauty of this is once she is fully certified, fire departments, police departments, any of the first responder community that is in the area that is aware that we have (her), we will come to them,” Hartman said. “We can bring the dog, we can bring the training and we can bring the shared experience to our first responder community in those times of stress.”
Hope has breeding on her side. Golden doodles are known for their good temperament, intelligence and ease to train, according to Hartman.
“Along with that, they are extremely hypoallergenic, which allows us to take them into medical facilities. Anybody who is normally allergic to dogs generally does not have any sort of allergic reaction. So that increases the number of people that we can help,” he explained.
With facility approval, Hope also could be trotting down the hallways of hospitals and care facilities as soon as November.
“It helps. It helps a lot. To see the patients smile when they see them, I mean, I don’t know of anyone who can’t not smile at a little puppy dog coming running at them,” said Hartman.
For now, Hope resides at Vandermeer’s home and brings cheer to those who visit AMR West Michigan’s offices in Grand Rapids.
As for her name: “Hope just kind of stuck to us when you kind of look at what the program is all about – having hope for first responders that are struggling with PTSD, with stress in the workplace,” said Vandermeer. “We just kind of felt like the name fit the program and it fit her.”
‘EXTREME’ STRESS, HIGHER SUICIDE RATES
The toll of handling emergencies weighs heavy on emergency medical first responders, a 2015 survey shows.
Published in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services, it found 37% of EMS employees contemplated suicide, roughly 10 times higher than the national average, based on 2015 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Approximately 7% of those surveyed said they had attempted suicide, more than 13 times higher than the national average reported by the CDC.
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“This information concretely establishes the fact that EMS provider stress is prevalent in our nation and is extreme, to say the least,” the report states.
“It affects the first responder community as a whole and we have been personally affected at AMR with suicide in the last several years, with several events. And it’s hard. We ask a lot of our paramedics and a lot of our EMTs and they do a hard job and it’s stressful,” Hartman said.
But Hartman said the emergency response community is improving in recognizing stress and its impact, leading to programs like the one that’s spawned Hope.
“Hopefully this (program) will prevent some incidences,” Hartman said.
He said AMR West Michigan took a proactive approach in applying to the therapy dog program late last year.
“We don’t want to wait until there’s a big event and start the yearlong process to have coping opportunities right here at the workplace. We want to have that before it happens,” he said.
HELPING THOSE WHO HELP
Having resources is one thing; using them is another.
The 2015 survey found 18% of first responders who reported experiencing critical stress on the job took part in a critical incident stress management group program and 11% utilized an employee assistance program. While the majority found their respective programs helpful, some pointed out the psychologist or therapist’s response showed their inexperience in dealing with people in the EMS industry or with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Not so for therapy dogs like Hope. They don’t need language to heal.
“The beauty of the therapy dog is that it’s instantaneous. Not only is she available almost instantly, the results — I mean, as soon as you have a puppy in your hands, the stress relief begins,” explained Hartman.
As for financial support for mental health issues brought on by the job, emergency responders in Michigan have it better than their counterparts in many other states, according to an October 2019 analysis.
The report by workers’ compensation firm Gerber & Holder shows 10 states including Michigan generally cover worker’s compensation for mental health issues, even without a physical injury. Another 28 states offered limited coverage, and the rest did not cover injuries that exclusively involved mental health.
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On April 17, Democratic Reps. Jim Haadsma of Battle Creek, Terry Sabo of Muskegon and Kevin Colemen of Westland tried to take that a step further by introduced a bill to the Republican-controlled House that would update Michigan’s Worker’s Disability Compensation Act of 1969.
House Bill 4473 would create the automatic presumption that first responders seeking worker’s disability compensation for PTSD have PTSD. The measure would require employers to provide “scientific evidence” their employee’s PTSD was unrelated to their job. Arguing that the PTSD was a pre-existing condition or providing an “abstract medical opinion” countering the employee’s claim that their job led to it wouldn’t be enough to prevent first responders from collecting worker’s disability benefits.
The catch for AMR employees: the proposed amendment applies to fully-paid firefighters, county sheriff’s deputies, members of the Michigan State Police and conservation officers, but does not include paramedics.
But AMR West Michigan still has Hope.
“This is the first program that I’ve ever dealt with in my professional career that everybody loves. Everybody loves this puppy,” Hartman said.
“This is a very visible component that shows that we care about the well-being of our first responders. We care about our medics, we care about our EMTs, we care about all of our staff. And this is something that we are doing solely for them. This doesn’t help pay bills at all. This is solely for our medics,” he emphasized.