May 5, 2021

Dogs offer healing. During Nurse’s Week, Maggie is doing just that.

Maggie didn’t expect to be a front-line worker during a pandemic.

And yet, maybe it was destiny. She was born Margaret “Hotlips” Houlihan after all, and very much like her namesake from M*A*S*H, the 3-year-old white Labrador retriever isn’t flustered by stressful surroundings.

Maggie is the chief compassion officer for Philadelphia’s Jefferson College of Nursing. On the job she comforts nursing students, physicians, staff members, patients, even a recent hospital facilities crew that found respite in stroking her belly during a trying day. This week, she’ll visit eight hospitals as part of National Nurses Week.

“Maggie is the epitome of compassion,” says Marie Ann Marino, dean of the nursing program and Maggie’s owner. “I just can’t even put into words how incredible she is.”

Maggie’s story begins at Leashes of Valor, where we’re working to provide post-9/11 veterans with service dogs that help mitigate the symptoms caused by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury and Military Sexual Trauma. Training a service dog costs about $25,000, but the veterans pay nothing.

While Maggie was initially meant for a one-on-one relationship with a veteran, the timing — spring 2020 — derailed that plan. With COVID-19 surging, the veteran decided the timing wasn’t right for travel and training.

During that same time period, our team presented at a PTSD panel at Thomas Jefferson University, where we talked with Marino about the effects mounting COVID-19 cases were taking on students and staff there.

Every day more people were dying, often abruptly, without the means to say goodbye to family members. Marino, a former Navy Nurse Corps reservist, feared compassion fatigue, significant emotional and physical pain associated with constant caregiving. The nursing students were entering the profession during the biggest health crisis of a lifetime.

Marino had read the story of Kenny the labradoodle, a therapy dog at the University of Virginia’s nursing school, whose job is to brighten the day of students, staff and hospital visitors.

She asked us about the potential for a dog to offer similar comfort. Grant funds were available to assist with costs.

Call it serendipity. Maggie was ready and waiting for a job.

We traveled to Long Island to hand her over and train the dean on the skills she would use in a hospital setting. Maggie transitioned seamlessly to the more social role despite initially being trained to work solely alongside one veteran.

The vest she arrived in read “Do not pet,” the typical message for working dogs. Her new maroon and gray vest, Thomas Jefferson University colors, reads: “I’m friendly. Please pet me!”

Everybody does. In a world largely craving physical interaction, Maggie is approachable, irresistible, eager to give and receive love, whether it’s a tired nurse or a stressed-out student in need. As Marino found out recently, Maggie’s ability to change the mood even extends to a frustrated work crew.

On the way to a hospital vaccine clinic, she and Maggie took the back route, walking past a group of facility engineers working on a faulty boiler. The men melted at the sight of Maggie, who ended up lying in the center of them, receiving attention from all. Several hours later, Marino walked through again and saw that same crew frustrated from the long hours.

One crew member said, “This was the worst damn day ever. The best part about it was that dog!”

Maggie has her own Instagram account with a double-digit following.

“Maggie knows what she’s supposed to do,” Marino said. “She’s just a love. She walks around. She rubs against people. When you put her vest on, she goes into motion.”

Maggie is busy this week; she’ll visit eight Philadelphia hospitals as part of National Nurses Week. She is part of the celebration to recognize the graduating nurses.

“Everyone really wants to see her and they’re all just exhausted,” Marino said. “They’re really building it up and looking forward to it.”

Touch so largely absent in this world of COVID is something Maggie can provide. “COVID has eliminated this human touch and softness about humanity,” Marino said. “Unfortunately, that’s affecting nursing. People are physically fatigued, compassion fatigued. Emotionally fatigued. It’s just overwhelming.”

We started Leashes of Valor because we believe dogs offer healing. We’re veterans who experienced it firsthand. A healthcare setting is not unlike a war zone. We have to make hard decisions. The outcomes aren’t always pretty. Getting the chance to sit on the floor and love on a dog before you go home makes things a little bit better.

Slip the vest on Maggie, and she’s stoked. Eager to work. Ready to make a difference.

“I think what Maggie is doing now, she was meant to do,” Marino says. “She’s special. Really special.”