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RX for hospital stress: Hug a puppy, cuddle a kitten

Pennsylvania Hospital crisis counselors Amy Kaltenmark (left) and Michele Gordon take a puppy stress break from their jobs March 22, 2017 as they hold Magenta (left) and Clementine, six-week-old puppies from the Morris Animal Refuge in South Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania Hospital crisis counselors Amy Kaltenmark (left) and Michele Gordon take a puppy stress break from their jobs March 22, 2017 as they hold Magenta (left) and Clementine, six-week-old puppies from the Morris Animal Refuge in South Philadelphia.Read moreCLEM MuRRAY

Medical training is tough. Stressful. Grueling at times. So Wednesday afternoon when Stephen Tsoukas and two of his fellow residents at Pennsylvania Hospital got the word, off they went. This wasn't just any break.

Puppies! Kittens!

"As soon as we heard, we got our team, and we ran over," said Tsoukas.

"This definitely helps," the medical resident said. "Hospitals are stressful. Some cases are sad. This brightens up your day."

Wednesday's event was Paws for Pennsy (P4P), a popular program that was started last year at the Philadelphia hospital. It was the creation of Care for the Care Provider, a hospital committee whose mission is to look at ways to address the stress and even sorrow that can come with being in the medical profession. Losing a longtime patient, experiencing the unexpected death of a patient or colleague, or other on-the-job losses can be so traumatic, the consequences have come to be known as "second-victim phenomenon."

Compared with some of the Care for the Care Provider committee's heavier initiatives like a 24/7 peer support project, Paws for Pennsy is meant to be a lighthearted effort at boosting staff morale. Last March, America's first hospital opened doors to some residents of the nearby Morris Animal Refuge, a pioneer in our nation's history of sheltering homeless pets.

Animals helping humans cope with life's problems, of course, isn't a new idea. What pet lover hasn't found solace in the soft fur of a four-legged friend?

More formally, there are all kinds of trained assistance animals. Service animals, like Seeing Eye Dogs for the blind, are specially trained to help humans with various disabilities. Emotional support animals and psychiatric support dogs are other kinds of helper animals, some also with special schooling. Pennsylvania Hospital's P4P guests fall into the category of therapy animals – which through behavioral training or just by being their snuggly selves can make the world seem like a softer, kinder place.

Hospitals, however, are realms of life and death. What can puppies and kittens do to help?

Apparently, quite a bit.  Just as animal-assisted therapy – furry goodwill ambassadors – has been proven to help reduce anxiety, improve mood, and provide a soothing presence for hospital patients, nursing-home residents, and special-needs children,  hospital staffers who took part in P4P found it did them good.

In the first of the three previous P4P events that the hospital committee held, participants were surveyed before and after the event about their relative levels of stress and feelings of happiness.

Some of the people went in feeling neutral. But nearly 53 percent said they showed up feeling very or at least somewhat stressed, and 17 percent admitted to varying degrees of feeling unhappy.

After hanging out with animals? Nearly 83 percent reported they felt stress-free or close to it, and 90 percent said they felt happy.

A constant chorus of "Oh my God!" and "Awwwww" could be heard as a steady stream of hospital staff came to cuddle and take selfies with their animal guests.

"I can't wait to get my hands on a puppy," said Kaitlin Kennedy, a social worker who soon was snuggling with one of the little pits.

"Our jobs can be sad," Kennedy said. "They stress we should have compassion for ourselves."

Queen Muse, a member of Penn Medicine's media relations staff, put in an application to adopt Bella, a tiny gray-and-white kitten that won her heart. "I liked how playful she was," Muse said.

The puppies garnered their own adoption applications, including one from Michele Gordon, a crisis counselor who helps people who need drug treatment or are in psychiatric distress. Wednesday,  she was getting a love break with a tiny pit  pup with blue eyes and a Penn Med bandanna.

"I felt it," Gordon said, explaining why she had picked that pup. "All the pets I've had, I just felt it."

Jeremy Souder, hospital medical director for palliative care, was already spoken for. Inspired by the coming Paws for Pennsy event, the doctor, his wife, and their three young daughters went to Morris on Sunday and picked out a black Labrador retriever-mix puppy, Clover.

Without being asked, Souder whipped out his phone. Of course, he had photos. At 3 a.m., he admitted, he was up playing fetch with the puppy.

In medicine, "there are a lot of challenges and burnout," he said. "Pets help with that. They bring a lot of meaning and warmth into people's lives."

They can also have a way of making dads into heroes.

"My oldest daughter who doesn't talk as much as her sisters looked at me and said, 'Dad, this is the best surprise ever,' " Souder said.

Go, puppy.