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Back on the job after 16 months, therapy dogs helping kids get COVID-19 shots

Posted at 2:50 PM, Dec 15, 2021

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Paula Akers has been administering COVID-19 vaccines day in and day out since early April. A medical assistant, she works with patients of all ages at Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego,

"It was nonstop. You never sat down," recalls Akers. "In the beginning, we were doing 1,700 or so shots a day of adults. I would do 200-300 a day on my own because there were only 11 of us. I'm guessing, at this point, it's getting close to 10,000."

Now that kids are eligible for the shot, the clinic is administering 500-600 vaccinations per day.

"You just need a little more finessing with them. It takes a little more patience, a little more time with the little ones," said Akers.

As a new, contagious variant begins spreading across the U.S., many adults remain hesitant to get the vaccine. For kids, hesitancy stems out of fear it'll hurt.

Being a diabetic, Akers gives herself a shot every day of insulin.

"I know how it feels to have to do this every day, and it's scary," Akers said.

The staff is now getting a helping hand to help calm nerves in the clinic. After a 16-month hiatus, the hospital's canine therapy program is back up and running. Volunteer canines made more than 15,000 bedside visits each year before the pandemic hit.

Islay, an 8-year-old doxie-poo, is among the trained therapy dogs comforting children in the clinic. She and her owner, Jennifer Shumaker, have been volunteering at Rady's since 2016.

"It was hard on the dogs, to be honest. They missed it," said Shumaker. "That's what we're supposed to do. Is help in situations like this – and we couldn't."

The program's hiatus was also hard on staff.

"Because it helps us feel better, helps calm us. Because my nerves are sometimes frazzled," said Akers. "When they started coming in, you could just tell. The atmosphere just changes."

Akers says the therapy dogs often gravitate towards patients and staff needing extra TLC.

"It's a tough environment to come in that room and have other kids screaming," said Akers. "Most of the time when we do it they don't even realize that we've done it when they're just petting the dog."

The hospital created the program to bring joy and comfort to young patients and a distraction from pain, medical treatments and daily hospital routines.

Akers believes adults can take the kids as an example.

"Just know that it's OK to have your reservations about it, but at the end of the day, you have to think about your neighbors and your family members," said Akers. "You see how brave these 5-year-olds are, coming in to say, 'I'm making a difference so I can go see my grandma and my grandpa'."