For nearly three years, Laura Wall and her family only felt comfortable venturing outside of their home for work, school and doctors’ appointments.
Her concerns of leaving home began to lessen after an interaction between her 7-year-old son, Jameson, and a four-legged member of the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt staff, Squid, a facility dog.
The two met during one of Jameson’s hospital admissions, which proved to be a life-changing experience for the family. Wall had Squid to thank.
Squid, a 4-year-old Canine Companions for Independence-certified dog, joined the hospital staff in February 2020, and has shown a positive impact on patients, families and staff. Jameson is one of nearly 700 patient interactions for Squid since he arrived.
Wall and her husband, Corey, are both officers with the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department and known in their community for fostering children. They met Jameson when he was 19 months old after his grandparents, who had no ability to care for him, asked them to take him. His mother was in jail, and the toddler had been born addicted to drugs.
The Walls agreed, became permanent legal guardians, and later adopted Jameson at age 3.
In 2020, Jameson began experiencing extreme behavioral swings, an inability to control anger and sleep issues. He was diagnosed with pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome, or PANS. Children with PANS develop severe physical, neurological and psychological disturbances that interfere with their daily functioning.
Frequent hospitalizations became a regular part of their lives.
“We were really struggling,” said Laura Wall. “As he progressively became sicker, with extreme neurological and movement disorders, doctors were concerned that Jameson’s condition was terminal. There were so many tests and scans being done to help determine what was going on.
“Jameson was in a lot of distress the entire week we were in the hospital. It was very hard for us to find a happy moment, and in walked Squid and his handler, Leslie,” said Wall.
“When a child who never smiles, suddenly does … that was enough to keep us going. Squid changed our lives and gave us hope again. He made all the difference.”
So much so, said Wall, that the nursing staff asked if the family had a pet dog they could bring in from home.
Unfortunately, interacting with their pets was not an option. The family had always known their son to be aggressive with animals, which made the interaction with Squid so remarkable.
The pair began researching service dogs. Both the cost and long waitlist made it out of reach.
Wall, who had previous experience with therapy dogs as the director of humane education and a dog trainer for a no-kill animal shelter in South Florida, began reaching out to dog trainers for guidance. Armed with key traits, appropriate age and other details for a service dog, she stumbled upon a rescue organization in Cumberland County that was housing a dog that fit the description to a T.
“One of the things, outside of the fact that he met all the criteria, was that he was wearing a green bandana,” said Wall. “Green is Jameson’s favorite color. On Mother’s Day, volunteers from the animal rescue made the four-hour, round-trip drive to bring Sushi to us because we couldn’t leave with Jameson.
“He walked into the house, immediately went to lie next to my son, and Jameson completely relaxed. It was as if they knew each other for years. I knew that with training, the relationship would only get better.”
Sushi recently completed his four-week training. Life in the Wall household is settling.
“Before Sushi, we had everything delivered to the house,” said Wall. “Now, we are able to go to the grocery store without having to restrain Jameson in a cart or wheelchair.
“Now, we can go places. I feel normal. We are no longer isolated, and we don’t have the overwhelming feelings of hopelessness.
“Jameson is so proud of his dog,” exclaimed Wall. “His impulse control issues have improved. I know things will continue to get better.”
The Facility Dog Program at Monroe Carell was announced in 2018 through a collaboration with Mars Petcare’s BETTER CITIES FOR PETS program, which seeks to bring the healing power of pets to more children and families like the Walls. Mars Petcare has generously supported the program since its launch.
Squid completed an extensive two-year training regime and graduated in 2020 from an intensive two-week instruction with Leslie Grissim, MA, primary handler, and Erin Munn, Certified Child Life Specialist, who serves as the secondary handler.
“Facility dogs are trained to engage patients to help them achieve a specific treatment goal and have been shown to decrease anxiety,” said Grissim, facility dog coordinator. “People are drawn to the human-animal bond. Animal-assisted interventions offer both patients and staff the ability to talk without barriers and opportunity to express themselves in a way that may not be possible with another human. Connecting with an animal can break down walls,” added Grissim.
The human-animal bond was apparent with 6-month-old Rose Daniel who was born with biliary atresia (a congenital condition in which the bile ducts inside or outside the liver do not develop normally) that eventually required a lifesaving liver transplant. Squid was a frequent visitor during her multiple admissions.
“It is one of the things that really impacted us,” said Emily, Rose’s mother. “I had never been in a hospital and wasn’t aware of the intricacies of the teamwork and the comfort that seeing familiar faces can bring.
“From our first admission at 2 weeks old, the brightest spot was the facility dog, Squid. I cannot explain it, but even when she was teeny tiny they would look at each other in the eyes.
“It was incredible. They were connected and in tune. We were absolutely amazed by this,” recalled Daniel. “Every hospitalization Squid would come visit. For me, that’s been the best part of the experience. It was pure joy when he was there with us.”
At 4 months old, Rose began reaching to touch Squid’s ear, which progressed to smiling at him, watching his every move and petting him.
As Rose’s health declined, Daniel remembers the dark moments watching her baby grow sicker while awaiting a liver. Watching Squid stand on his hind legs to peer over the crib to see Rose brought Daniel comfort.
“I will never forget — 15 minutes after getting word that we were going to transplant, Squid came in,” laughed Daniel. “I was hugging him and crying. Those are the memories I want to keep from this — it makes it easier when there are bright spots like this.”
Rose received her liver on July 9. Now at home, she continues her road to recovery.
For Rose’s family, Squid was a key part of the team caring for them.
“I am so grateful that this hospital places such importance on the value that a facility dog offers. I am so thankful for the incredible care we received both medically and through support staff,” Daniel said.