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'She saves us': A service dog in training supports hospital staff during coronavirus pandemic

When it all feels like too much, a gentle nudge from Wynn's nose helps staff at this Denver hospital feel comforted.
/ Source: TODAY

Weighing only 41 pounds, Wynn, the yellow Labrador retriever, was born the runt. Yet, her diminutive stature doesn’t stop her from performing her very big job: Comforting emergency department staff and first responders as they care for patients during the coronavirus pandemic. A picture of her with her volunteer puppy raiser, Dr. Susan Ryan, went viral as it showed Wynn providing support when it was needed the most.

“I just slid down along the wall and Wynn just laid there with me,” Ryan, an emergency medicine physician at Rose Medical Center in Denver, told TODAY. “We find such comfort in just getting to pet her and it grounds us and just reminds us we’re connected.”

Wynn always went to work in the emergency department with her puppy raiser, Dr. Susan Ryan. As staff stress has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are seeking out cuddles with the good girl. Courtesy of Susan Ryan

Ryan raises Wynn, who will be 1 on April 10, until she’s ready for more intensive training to become a service animal for Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit that provides service dogs to people with disabilities.

Ryan always brought Wynn to the emergency department, where the good girl stays in a crate in a social worker’s office. She enjoys comforting first responders and emergency department staff. Since the hospital started introducing extra safety precautions, having a snuggle with her requires a lot more hand washing (and fur cleaning). But she’s making a bigger impact on the overstressed staff.

“(It’s) a heart-to-heart-connection. We’re being present in the moment by petting her, smelling her paws, which still smell like popcorn. This just helps us remember to be human and connected,” Ryan said. “It just melts away the armor that we have put up to carry out our jobs.”

The social worker who shares her office with Wynn made it an oasis of sorts by adding an aroma therapy diffuser, and signs like “It’ll pass. It’ll pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass,” Ryan said. When people visit, she dims the lights, covers them with a warm blanket and plays a guided meditation as they cuddle with Wynn.

“It really helps. I’ve never been really skilled at meditation but just having someone remind you to take three breaths helps,” Ryan said.

Having Wynn, a service dog to be, helps Dr. Susan Ryan feel grounded as treating patients during the COVID-19 pandemic can be overwhelming. Courtesy of Susan Ryan

As stress levels have increased, Wynn has become even more compassionate. Even the most overwhelmed person undergoes a transformation after a few minutes with the pup.

“When they go out, their faces are entirely different,” Ryan explained. “Wynn seems to know when people are stressed and she gets closer and climbs on top of their laps. I like to think she’s that in tune."

Even the most overwhelmed staff person feels better after cuddling with Wynn, a service dog in training. Courtesy of Susan Ryan

Wynn becomes excited to don her vest, collar and leash because she knows she’s going to work. Every day, these are washed after Wynn’s shift. She’s also wiped down following every visit from hospital staff. As Ryan and her colleagues are faced with grueling choices in treating COVID-19 patients, Wynn is needed more than ever.

“I take her for a walk and then I’m grateful for the routine. When I wake up in the morning I’m not inundated with sadness,” Ryan said. “Wynn is so much in service, giving of her heart … There is no doubt she saves us.”