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Hospital volunteers reclaim healing, meaning after COVID lockout

Updated December 24, 2021 - 10:08 am

Doctors did not expect Jennifer Pollock to survive a medical emergency 12 years ago. And when she did, but no longer knew her husband’s name or those of her children, she asked God why.

“Here I am a mom to little kids and I even have a hard time even being a mom,” recalled the 58-year-old Las Vegas resident of the early days of her recovery.

“God, why am I here?” she had asked. “Because it’s not easy, you know? And it’s a miracle that I’m alive. So he must have wanted me here for something.”

Pollock believes she found her answer in volunteering with Lutheran Church Charities’ comfort dog ministry. The ministry is based on the belief that a sweet-natured golden retriever may provide more solace than words alone can.

Partnered with Lois, a 7-year-old golden retriever, Pollock visits hospitals, nursing homes, schools and churches around the valley. They are regulars at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center east of the Strip, where the comfort dog program holds a special status.

For 18 months, volunteer programs at Sunrise were suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although some programs have resumed, volunteers still aren’t allowed to visit patient rooms, with the exception of the dogs and their handlers.

‘A prescription almost’

“We look at our therapy animals as medical — a prescription almost,” explained Tracy Szymanski, the hospital’s director of patient transport and support services. As such, they are allowed to visit those floors that don’t have COVID-19 patients.

Pollock and Lois visit rooms only when asked, sometimes by a family member who will see them in a hallway. Some patients request regular visits, especially those without nearby family members, Szymanski said. Both employees and patients find comfort in petting Lois, and also in chatting with Pollock and other handlers.

People pet and hug Lois, crying sometimes. “Most of the time they’ll start to talk and they’ll just kind of give a little bit of that stress out, and the emotions out, and we just listen,” Pollock said. Sometimes they will all then say a prayer.

Comfort dogs from Lutheran Church Charities were dispatched to Las Vegas from around the country after the mass shooting on the Strip on Oct. 1, 2017, when a gunman from a hotel tower fired down upon a country music festival. The dogs, including Lois, visited area hospitals, including Sunrise. Lois, who lives with Pollock, is owned by the First Lutheran Church and School in Las Vegas

“It was just beautiful to watch the stress from the family members just for a moment go away,” as well as the stress of staff, said Szymanski, herself a survivor of the shooting.

When early pandemic restrictions kept them out of hospitals and other facilities, Pollock and fellow volunteer Diana Schneck tried to connect Lois with the world via Zoom. The experiment was not entirely successful.

“We tried Zoom. Lois doesn’t understand Zoom,” Schneck said. Instead of looking at the screen, Lois would just want to lie down.

‘Doing something useful’

Across town at MountainView Hospital, volunteer Ernie Hernandez did not like being furloughed by the lockdown and became the first volunteer to return to duty once pandemic restrictions eased.

“I missed it,” said Hernandez, who is 84. “Just staying at home, it was enough to drive you crazy.”

Hernandez staffs the information desk at the medical office building that is part of the MountainView campus in the northwest valley. He joined his wife, Madeline, as a volunteer at the hospital more than two decades ago.

Hernandez said he knew the moment he saw Madeline — a redhead from Dublin, Ireland, who went by the nickname Rusty — that she was the one for him.

“Seven weeks later, on a Saturday morning, we were married,” he said.. “And then a little over 54 years, on a Saturday morning, I lost her.”

Rusty died in 2014 of a heart attack, as Hernandez performed CPR while waiting for an ambulance.

“I stayed home a couple — three — weeks, and all the kids came in and they left,” said Hernandez, who has four children. “When I was sitting thinking about that and looking at four walls, I decided that wasn’t good. And I came back (to the hospital). It was good therapy for me.”

On a recent morning, the Marine and former Boeing lead mechanic directed a steady stream of people to doctor’s offices throughout the tower, their locations committed to memory.

Hernandez exceeded the call of the duty at the information desk by performing CPR on a man who had a seizure and wasn’t breathing. The incident, reminiscent of when his wife had a heart attack, was traumatic for Hernandez. But the man made a full recovery.

Hernandez has clocked just shy of 10,000 hours as a volunteer at MountainView.

“I just keep it up. I feel that I’m doing something useful,” he said.

Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter.

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