(Rick Wallace Photo) It seemed like Chia the dog and her handler, Molly Purrington (right), knew what Pippa Stendahl (left) needed — a little eye contact as she sat on her mom’s (Sophia Stendahl) lap. Pippa and Chia locked gazes, and from there, it was a smooth operation as Medical Reserve Corps volunteer nurse Lorraine Chambers (center) sensed the relaxed moment and completed the injection.

(Rick Wallace Photo) It seemed like Chia the dog and her handler, Molly Purrington (right), knew what Pippa Stendahl (left) needed — a little eye contact as she sat on her mom’s (Sophia Stendahl) lap. Pippa and Chia locked gazes, and from there, it was a smooth operation as Medical Reserve Corps volunteer nurse Lorraine Chambers (center) sensed the relaxed moment and completed the injection.

Four-legged friends bring comfort at pediatric vaccination clinic

Comfort dogs Rain, Dazzle and Chia helped soothe Vashon’s youth during their second COVID-19 shot.

What might have eased anxieties and fears for you as you received vaccinations as a child? Would a favorite stuffed animal have helped? Perhaps a family member at your side? Or, just maybe, would a comfort dog have soothed those fears?

Enter Rain, Dazzle and Chia: Vashon’s own cadre of comfort dogs who were at the side of whoever needed them at the most recent pediatric COVID-19 vaccination clinic, which was held on Saturday, Dec. 11. at Chautauqua Elementary School.

The children who came to the vaccination clinic on Dec. 11 all received their second dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, as they had attended an earlier vaccination clinic for their first dose. These were among the youngest of Vashon’s youth to be vaccinated, as earlier clinics had focused on older children in the community.

Saturday’s clinic had six rooms for children to be vaccinated individually, along with a vaccinator and a vaccine assistant. Children also were with their parents, who often held their children as they received their second jab. The clinic served 110 children who received shots that day.

The three comfort dogs working at the clinic that day, were there in part due to the efforts and expertise of Jinna Risdal, the coordinator of the Community Care Team for VashonBePrepared.

Risdal is also an evaluator of therapy animal teams (also referred to as comfort animals) and a national trainer for the organization, Pet Partners. In her work, she has evaluated teams of not only comfort dogs, but also teams of comfort cats and llamas.

Pet Partners, previously known as Delta Society, began in 1977 as the work between a group of veterinarians and psychiatrists who had observed the positive impact between humans and animals regarding health and happiness. In 1991, the group’s therapy animal program was launched — with volunteer therapy animal teams now making more than three million visits each year. On Vashon, there are currently 30 to 40 teams of comfort animals and handlers who volunteer with Pet Partners.

Risdal was ready to go at the clinic with her comfort dog, Rain, to provide comfort to whoever needed or wanted it. Rain and Risdal traveled from room to room.

On their rounds, the pair met Vivian Lentzsner, a young student who was apprehensive about receiving her second COVID vaccine.

“Rain has arthritis and has to get shots too,” said Risdal to Lentzsner. Risdal showed Lentzsner how to feed Rain treats before she received her vaccine.

Dazzle, another comfort dog at the Chautauqua clinic, was also making the rounds to the various rooms to be of assistance. After her second vaccine, Violet Weigand, another child getting a shot that day, gave a big hug to Dazzle.

Each child also received another special treat after their vaccinations: — a sticker, new mask and pencil to take home with them. In addition, they were treated to a clown show by Luz Gaxiola during their 15-minute observation period.

Brothers Soren and Otto Blomgren, second grade and kindergarten students at Chautauqua, respectively, liked having Dazzle with them while they received their vaccinations. When asked what the two planned to do after receiving their second shot, Soren said he and his brother were going to go to Granny’s Attic and then watch the Disney+ show “Olaf Presents.”

“Olaf from ‘Frozen’ tells things from other movies,” explained Soren.

For Risdal, she has noticed great benefits in having the comfort dogs present at the clinics.

“You just see the kids relax,” said Risdal in a phone interview after the clinic. “Having the dog in the room helps —it normalizes it.”

Risdal has been working with comfort dogs for the last ten years and has also evaluated hundreds of teams of comfort animals and their handlers across the Puget Sound region. On Vashon, there are currently 30 to 40 teams of comfort animals and handlers who volunteer with Pet Partners.

Risdal stressed that comfort dogs like Rain, Dazzle and Chia must have a “myriad” of skills in order to pass the high standards of Pet Partner’s Therapy Animal Program. These skills, said Risdal, include a passion for people, an aptitude test and being great around other dogs, loud noises, and equipment.

While each team is different, Risdal says the length of time spent in training for a comfort dog can vary. In Risdal’s experience, some comfort dogs and their handlers are ready to go in four to six months, while others may take two to three years before they are ready. Risdal also requires that dogs in her classes be at least one year old and to have taken obedience classes before they begin training.

The pediatric clinics would not have been possible without several key people involved. Marijke van Heeswijk and Mary Bergman were among two of the individuals who helped organize and structure the pediatric clinic on Vashon.

According to van Heeswijk, one of the main goals of organizing the pediatric vaccination clinics was to make the experience age-appropriate and to ensure the logistics of the program ran smoothly.

Planning began two weeks prior to the first pediatric vaccine clinic. In partnership with Vashon Pharmacy, Vashon Island School District and VashonBePrepared, four clinics were planned for children to receive their first Pfizer shot, and an additional four clinics to receive the second shot.

Third to fifth graders were vaccinated first, and Saturday’s clinic had the youngest participants — children in PreK through second grade. Van Heeswijk added that younger groups required more hands-on attention and care, as more than 45 volunteers turned out to assist during the day’s clinic.

In total, more than 90 volunteers in the community have offered their time during the eight-clinic process — including attending Zoom training in order to be ready for the vaccination clinics.

Overall, said van Heeswijk, the clinics were a “very, very big effort” to bring to the community. During the course of the eight vaccine clinics, 354 children in total were vaccinated.

For Mary Bergman, a retired pediatrician, it was absolutely critical that the pediatric vaccine clinics be done well.

“We had to do it right,” said Bergman in a phone interview. “Kids are so different than adults.”

In building out the pediatric vaccine clinics, Bergman wanted to ensure that children’s anxiety levels could be adequately addressed — so the idea with comfort dogs in the rooms with children came about, as well as having Carolyn Wester-Stratton, a child psychologist and puppeteer, work with children and assist with breathing exercises to help calm down.

For Bergman, the clinics were “not to be a negative experience,” but to instead have children “be proud of what they did.”

Vashon’s pediatric clinic structure has also received the attention of others — Bergman said a friend in California loved the way Vashon created its clinics, and Bergman is open to talking to others through the process of creating vaccine clinics like the one she and van Heeswijk helped create.

“[There’s] no playbook for putting together a vaccine clinic,” said Bergman. “Trust me, I’ve looked for it.”

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