Volunteer Betsy Stange is nearing her 100th visit to Coquina Center nursing home, with her pet-therapy dogs, Rocky and Riley.
BY MIKE CAVALIERE | ASSOCIATE EDITOR
Many clients at Coquina Center nursing home, off Wilmette Avenue, roll slowly in their wheelchairs or lie in their beds, coughing and lethargic. But their demeanors change when they see Rocky rambling down the hallway.
Energy rushes to their faces. They begin to smile. They reach out their hands to pet behind his ears.
Rocky is what his handler, Betsy Stange, calls a “successful failure,” initially trained to be a service dog for the mobility-impaired or veterans with PTSD. But he startled too easily. So Stange trained him for pet therapy, instead, which is where he found his calling.
A 26-year Army veteran, Stange wanted to continue serving after her time in the military. And when she saw how her mother and aunt responded when volunteers brought animals to the hospital after they each fell ill, she saw how she wanted to get involved.
“I know what it meant for my mom,” Stange says, walking Rocky from room to room to say hello to all the customers, stopping in the hallway whenever he spots new hands that haven’t touched him yet. “And it’s not just the residents, either. … It’s also the family members, and even the staff.”
When nurses, like physical therapist Karen Rhodes, see Rocky, some get even more excited than their patients. And Rocky has his “regulars” — one, a World War II vet with thick-rimmed glasses, perked right up when Rocky came by his bedside. He started petting him and talking excitedly: “Oh, Rocky! Rocky, Rocky, I love Rocky! It’s been so long. Beautiful dog! What a dog!”
And Stange says that’s normal. It doesn’t matter how bad some of the patients are doing on a given day. When Rocky comes to visit, the day seems brighter.
“The blood pressure in the room just settles,” she says.
And that feeling is palpable, especially in busier wings, like the physical therapy clinic, where residents bounce balls with nurses, work their legs on steps and run machines. When Rocky enters, the bustle calms.
“There’s my love,” one patient says, pressing her face up to Rocky's. “I don’t think you know how good you are.”
A lot of residents come to the 120-bed Coquina Center after having strokes and aneurisms. Some have lived there upwards to eight years.
“It’s just amazing that (Stange) makes the time to come here twice a week,” Linda Prusak, recreation director, says. “Nobody volunteers like that anymore. … She’s just a wonderful girl.”
But you can tell that it’s Stange’s pleasure. She’s trained Rocky for two pet-therapy certifications; she also brings him to Halifax Health’s psych ward; she’s nearing her 100th visit to Coquina Center; and she even made baseball cards for her two pets (Riley is the younger, female therapy dog), with their credentials and hobbies printed on the back.
She’s gotten her certification for the READing Paws program, as well, and plans to start bringing Rocky to local schools to help kids hone their literacy skills.
“I happen to have the time (and) I happen to have a good dog,” Stange says, leading Rocky toward another outstretched hand. “I just know what it meant to my mom.”