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Perla the poodle, putting kids at ease

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Not long ago, I was walking through the parking garage at Children’s National Medical Center when I spied a girl of about 4 waiting with her mother at an elevator. All of a sudden, the little girl started sobbing. I think she had just realized where she was.

This is not to say that Children’s is a bad place. Quite the contrary. Miracles are performed there every day. It’s just to say that for some kids who must go there often, it will have certain inevitable associations.

That’s why the hospital’s Child Life specialists do all they can to make the young patients’ visits as scare-free as possible. That includes having a standard poodle named Perla in the waiting room of the radiology department.

Perla is there one day every other week, brought by her owner Claire Motley, a staff assistant in the department.

“When they’re waiting for an exam and they see there’s a dog here, it takes their mind off of it,” said Tracy Sharbaugh, Child Life specialist. “They can just relax for a little bit. When I work with patients after they’ve worked with Perla, I notice they’re much more calm, able to listen better and just have a clearer mind before they have to do their exams.”

The radiology department has all sorts of ways to see what’s happening under the skin: X-rays, MRIs, CT scans. There can be a fair amount of waiting. Perla helps that time go by.

“She’s good at reading a patient’s emotions,” Tracy said. “Some kids are so excited, they run up. Perla can be excited with them. Others are shy and timid, and you need a more relaxed dog.”

Said Claire: “She’s good about the size. She seems to instinctively know to lay down when little ones come up.”

There’s only one habit of Perla’s that Claire had to break: The poodle loves bubbles and used to dance around popping them. “But when we weren’t blowing the bubbles fast enough, she started barking,” Claire said.

No more bubbles for Perla. Claire does bring a brush — rubber, so it’s safer — that the kids can use to brush her.

“She senses that she has a job to do,” Claire said of Perla. “When I get home and she’s playing with my other dog, she’s like a crazy lady. But when she comes here, her whole personality is very settled, very sedate, very quiet.”

Those are exactly the sort of qualities she can help bring out in patients, too.

Thankful, even so

When Thanksgiving draws near, the staff at Children’s does all it can to discharge those patients who are able to go home.

“We know that’s what they want,” said Terry Orzechowski, the hospital’s executive director of patient experience.

But some kids can’t go home just yet. They’re still too sick. Their immune systems may be compromised. They’ll be spending today at the hospital. If they can’t go to Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving will have to come to them.

“It’s surprisingly festive and celebratory,” Terry said. “No matter what, people want to celebrate. The staff does, too. . . . It really is just very heartwarming. I have always been happy to be here when it’s a holiday.”

On Thanksgiving, more family members will come to visit. The cafeteria will do a traditional dinner: turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie. Even those kids on restricted diets will find something special on their plates.

Local hotels have donated turkeys, which are given to families who might not have gotten around to grocery shopping — or might not have the money.

All week, special programs have been held in the hospital’s atrium, entertaining patients who can come down from their rooms. Arts and crafts projects in each ward have taken on an autumnal theme, with turkeys featuring prominently. Art therapists have been helping patients make thank-you cards to give to their siblings.

As we sit down to our various celebrations today, let’s give a thought to those at Children’s Hospital.

How to help

And please give a thought to participating in our annual campaign for Children’s. Your donation — $50, $100 or more — will go into the hospital’s uncompensated care fund, which pays the medical bills of underinsured children.

You can make a tax-deductible donation by going to www.childrensnational.org/washingtonpost or sending a check (payable to Children’s Hospital) to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

Thank you.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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