Published: 06:00, 17 September 2021
| Updated: 16:21, 17 September 2021
A therapy dog handler says she's been left in limbo about whether she can return to a hospital to provide much-needed support and relief for patients and staff.
Janice McCauley and her golden retriever Yazzy have been visiting Medway Maritime Hospital for several years but have been unable to return since the pandemic.
Visiting restrictions were tightened during the Covid outbreak but since they have been relaxed Janice says she's been kept in the dark by infection control managers who have to sign off their return to the wards.
But Medway NHS Foundation Trust has now confirmed to KentOnline it will be welcoming back Janice and Yazzy once final safety checks are carried out.
"We've not been told anything other than infection control have to decide it but it seems like we're being fobbed off," she told KentOnline about her frustrations and difficulty getting answers.
"We were told due to Covid we could no longer go on the wards which is fair enough but now that things have eased, Darent Valley Hospital went back on the wards in July and so did other hospitals.
"We keep asking when we can return but there are no answers at all."
Janice said she visited Dobbies in Gillingham earlier this week and workers at the NHS Covid hub set up outside the garden centre recognised Yazzy and asked Janice when they would be returning.
But Janice says she has to let disappointed doctors, nurses and patients know they cannot come back because they've not been given permission to return to the wards despite chasing various departments and people she's worked with before the pandemic.
"They say they will try to sort it but a month goes by and then another month later they say they are still waiting to hear from infection control," Janice adds.
Yazzy has become incredibly popular at the hospital over the years, visiting two or three days a week in the past.
Janice, who has trained guide dogs since 1995 and has owned Yazzy since he was a puppy, says she is regularly flooded with messages to the Facebook and Twitter accounts she runs.
People can put in requests for them to come down and see them but says patients are left "disappointed and upset" when she has to tell them she cannot visit them in hospital.
She says other hospital trusts in Kent have allowed therapy dogs to return to the wards and see patients and they have been allowed to go back to schools in recent weeks.
"It's a mystery to me and such a shame. Everyone used to look forward to it so much. We just want to go back.
"We cheer up patients, doctors and nurses alike. They love to stroke Yazzy and chat. It’s good therapy as some patients don’t get any visitors at all apart from us and it’s good for mental health and stress busting.
"We are volunteers so it’s unpaid but very rewarding work."
Janice, who lives in Lower Halstow near Sittingbourne, says it would be difficult to transfer to visit other hospitals because of the security and health checks required to make sure Yazzy is suitable and safe to come in – something which they have already done with Medway.
"It's not just something you walk in to do and we have to go through checks to do it," she explained.
"Any dog has to be checked before you can go in to make sure they have got the right temperament and nature – and Yazzy certainly does."
She recalled visiting a patient on end of life care and how Yazzy had interacted with them and put them at peace and said his daughter had been so grateful.
"It gives comfort and to see how a dog can do that is quite amazing," Janice said.
Although Yazzy has been to the hospital, it has been while accompanying Janice's husband to appointments and clinics as he now works as his assistance dog because he has Parkinson's.
Janice says she's also been allowed to bring the guide dog puppies she trains to hospital on these appointments.
Jane Murkin, Chief Nursing and Quality Officer at Medway NHS Foundation Trust, said: “The Trust has supported visits from therapy dogs from a long time, and I’m delighted to confirm that we will be able to welcome Janice and Yazzy back on our site very soon.
“We are finalising our procedures to make sure that Janice and the patients who she and Yazzy visit will remain safe during the ongoing pandemic.
"We apologise to Janice for not keeping her up to date with the progress of welcoming them back to our site, and look forward to seeing them soon.”