Tricounty News

St. Cloud Hospital volunteer receives state award

St. Cloud Hospital volunteer, J.P. Martin, has been named Health Care Heroes Volunteer of the Year by Twin Cities Business magazine and Medica.

The award was announced in the June 2010 issue of Twin Cities Business magazine. The article stated, "When the doctors come to write an order for me to work with a patient, I've got a responsibility ... I have to do my best to help that patient recover."

J.P. Martin, an Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) evaluator from Rice, was instrumental in starting the AAT program at St. Cloud Hospital in 1996. AAT dogs and handlers are St. Cloud Hospital volunteers who have completed extensive training. These dogs provide more than just companionship; they are used to provide a specific healing outcome.

The program began with Kat, his beloved English Springer Spaniel at his side, after responding to a request to visit a critically ill patient. The patient later died.

Martin, a retired chef, devoted himself to launching the AAT program. Aware of the safety requirements within the hospital, Martin became certified as an AAT handler through the Delta Society, the only program with a national registry that requires volunteer training and screening of animal-handler teams as well as recertification every two years.

Once certified, Martin worked with Rena Sespene-Hinz, clinical social worker at St. Cloud Hospital, to develop the AAT dog program. Education of staff and physicians was provided to promote the use of dogs in therapy for patients.

AAT dogs provide more than just companionship; they are used to provide a specific healing outcome. Through observations by staff, visits were shown to decrease anxiety, lower blood pressure, assist coma patients and help patients in the inpatient rehabilitation unit with physical therapy.

Martin, along with Kat, visited patients throughout all patient-care areas three days a week. As word of Martin's visits with Kat to hospitalized patients spread, demand grew.

In order to recruit more AAT dogs, Martin became qualified as an AAT evaluator in addition to a handler. Now, instead of prospective AAT dogs having to go to the Twin Cities for training, Martin could train dogs in the St. Cloud area. Martin puts as much energy into training AAT dogs as he does into the program. Once dogs are Delta-certified, Martin requires additional rigorous training and testing to make sure they are fit for a hospital setting. This requires 20-40 hours of sessions between Martin, the handler and dog.

The program continues with AAT dogs Secret, Rice, and Billie, after Kat died in 2007. Since becoming an evaluator, Martin has graduated 13 AAT dogs, the first in 2004. Martin has volunteered more than 7,000 hours, visiting more than 60,000 patients and staff since the program began.