At the M Health Fairview Forest Lake and Saint Paul sports facilities, employees are receiving much-needed relief through a comfort partner. Clayton, a yellow lab, has been visiting for the past four months.
“He knows when you’re not alone, or something has happened and you’re upset,” said Nicole Foster, EMS Education Specialist and paramedic with M Health Fairview. “He feels and you can tell he feels that maybe this provider needs me to take care of him a little bit, I’m going to wag my tail next to him. It’s great.”
The past few years have been difficult for first responders. The epidemic added to the uncertainty of the calls he receives.
“Being in the back of your mind that there’s a risk that I’m going to get COVID, I’m going to bring it home, and I’m going to share it with my friends — it was really hard,” he said. Foster. “That kind of thing also reduces your relatability.”
About a year ago, Project Manager Kevin Kane began looking at how to address mental health needs in a different way.
“I think the light bulb went on when we were on the 911 call and the patient was fine, it turned out to be a false alarm, and immediately the staff wanted to put the owner’s dog to sleep,” Kane said. “How are we going to make this happen for us?”
She found Clayton through Can Do Canines, which trains service animals. Kane said he worked with Clayton to encourage him to go to EMS personnel when he returned from the field.
“We’re seeing a lot of frustration with EMS workers so we’re looking for a way to address that,” Kane said. “Sometimes we forget that we have to take care of ourselves. […] If you can walk in the door and if you’re having a rough day or make a phone call and see him walk in, I think it makes everything better. “
Kane said first responders are asking to visit Clayton. He also regularly sends pictures of himself to his colleagues during difficult times.
“It gives me hope,” Kane said. “When we see a lot of the mental issues that EMS workers, frontline workers go through and see that they might have a way out of some of those things, it makes me smile.”
Clayton’s presence brings peace of mind to Foster, especially when he’s coming off of tough calls. She said the stigma surrounding mental health can prevent people from seeking help.
“A lot of us don’t know how to get help, we kind of hold back,” Foster said. “What’s difficult about being in EMS is that we see things that other people don’t see. Going to your friends who are not in the hospital and EMS, it’s not like you can talk about what you see or see. You’re just stuck.”
He believes that programs like this help raise awareness of the mental health issues that first responders face.
He said: “Sometimes we don’t find the words to speak to others or it is difficult to find words for what we have seen. “Having an animal to maybe not say what’s going on but maybe to be comforted by it, reduces anxiety.”
He hopes to see the program grow in the future.
“Clayton has been a great supporter of the company and as a service dog but we have three foundations,” Foster said. “Having another dog like him in our community would be amazing.”
Kane agrees and told us that he has already received calls from other organizations interested in setting up a similar program.
He said: “I like to tell others everything we have learned.” “It would be great if we could repeat something like this.”