LAURIUM, Mich. – There’s a new furry friend making rounds at Aspirus Keweenaw Hospital in Laurium and he’s bringing lots of love, comfort and affection to everyone he meets. His name is Bowser, and he’s a Chocolate Lab/Golden Retriever mix. His volunteer handler is Roland McKinstry, of Calumet, and together they make up the first registered animal therapy team at Aspirus Keweenaw.
“There are so many healing benefits therapy animals provide to both our patients and to our staff,” said Mariah Maggio, supervisor of volunteer and guest services at Aspirus. “It’s hard not to smile when you see them.”
Since Bowser and McKinstry started making visits at Aspirus in January, the reactions from patients and staff have been overwhelmingly positive. It’s widely known and scientifically proven that interacting with a gentle, friendly animal has significant benefits for one’s physical and mental health. Human-animal interaction can help lower blood pressure, improve cardiovascular health, lessen physical pain, lift spirits, lighten depression, decrease feelings of isolation, encourage communication, provide comfort, reduce loneliness, and eliminate boredom. Simply petting an animal can bring about feelings of relaxation and decrease anxiety.
Bowser and McKinstry are a registered Pet Partners Animal Therapy Team, and they make regular weekly visits to Aspirus on Thursday; from 2 to 3 p.m. Special on-call visits can also be arranged by request. Joining them on their rounds is Roland McKinstry’s wife Gloria, who worked as a nurse’s aide at this hospital for 36 years before retiring in 2006.
It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to become a registered animal therapy team. Volunteers must complete special training, the handler/animal team must pass a 22-part skills and aptitude test, and the animal must complete a health screening. Teams are required to pass an evaluation every two years.
McKinstry and Bowser trained through Superior Land Pet Partners, a local affiliate of Pet Partners Therapy Animal Group. Pet Partners is the nation’s largest and most prestigious nonprofit registering handlers of multiple species as volunteer teams providing animal-assisted interactions. There are plans to welcome additional animal therapy teams at Aspirus.
McKinstry, a retired Michigan Tech electrical and computer engineering research associate, has been a volunteer handler for the past two years. He makes his rounds in and around the Keweenaw, and the D.J. Jacobetti Home for Veterans in Marquette, Mich. If you ask Roland why he does it, his response is simple, “It puts a lot of smiles on a lot of faces.”