What do you do when your child is so terrified by the thought of the hospital that she won’t get out of the car? You enlist the help of Sprout the Service Dog at Studer Family Children’s Hospital at Sacred Heart.

Katie’s parents didn’t know what to do. The first time they tried to bring their daughter in for her MRI, they barely made it past the parking lot. Because of her autism, 19-year-old Katie has sensory and communication issues that make doctor visits and medical procedures a challenge.

“The facility dog team had a full schedule during Katie’s first visit to the hospital, so sadly this resulted in a traumatic experience for the family that could have been prevented had there been more facility dogs available for service,” said Julia, child life specialist and Sprout’s primary handler.When the family met Julia, they hoped things would be different. They couldn’t have expected just how different their experience would be.

“The reason we thought about this service is she’s had a lot of trouble with anxiety,” said Katie’s father, Bruce. “It’s an hour ride from Crestview to get to Sacred Heart, and during that hour, it just builds. That’s what prompted the thought – if there was something there when we pulled up that would make all that anxiety disappear, that would help a lot.”

Julia was ready, meeting the family at the car to ask Katie if she could help bring Sprout inside. To her parents’ surprise, Katie got out of the car without any assistance or resistance to lead the dog back into the hospital.

“Katie doesn’t express things verbally, but her memory and understanding of what’s going on is very clear. She will tell us she doesn’t want to go to the doctor. She recognizes where she is,” explained her mother, Jeannine. “It was a huge change in the day for us. It made it all much more bearable and for her, even fun.”

Inside the hospital, Julia shared videos of Sprout playing at the beach and running in the park. Katie’s body language began to change as she relaxed while petting the dog.

Then came time to check in for her procedure. Her parents apologized, knowing their daughter would become agitated and put up a fight. Jeannine was so worried, she began to cry silent tears. Julia continued to smile and joke with Katie. Still, when the nurse reached over to take her temperature, Katie’s turned her head in fear. “How silly are we?” Julia said. “We forgot to take Sprout’s temperature!”

So the nurse took Sprout’s temperature before taking Katie’s. Next came blood pressure. Katie’s parents said there was no way she would allow it, because the tightening cuff would stimulate negative sensory reactions. When the nurse placed the cuff on Sprout instead, Katie gave a full belly laugh. Smiling, she allowed the nurse to take her blood pressure.

Everyone joined in – transfixed by Sprout’s impact. One staff member brought a gown for the dog, and Katie changed into hers without hesitation. Seeing Sprout in the gown, she could not contain her laughter.

Now it was time to go in for the MRI. Katie’s parents could not accompany her all the way back, but Sprout and Julia could. Even the anesthesiologist played along, skipping into the hallway to deliver a mask that looked just like Katie’s. Julia held the mask over Sprout’s face to show there was nothing to be afraid of.

“Sprout says to tell you you’re doing an amazing job,” Julia said to Katie, who went to sleep with a smile on her face. Sprout returned to the waiting room to be with Katie’s parents, who were visibly concerned because of their previous experiences. Bruce said once Katie went back, Sprout knew they needed her, too. Without thinking, he found himself petting the dog.

When Katie woke up, she wasn’t anxious or worried about where she was. All she wanted was Sprout. Katie’s parents say they’ve learned not to be afraid to ask for special services like the ones Sacred Heart provides. “We didn’t want to cause a fuss,” Jeannine said. “But we’ve learned it’s not at all the case. That’s what they’re there for. Wherever we end up in the future, that’s something we’ll remember.”

Since her visit, Katie has asked about Sprout. She loves animals, often listing the names of her favorites while riding in the car. She remembers animal names from the Zoo and SeaWorld. Now, her parents tell us, Sprout has made the list.

“It was an awesome service the hospital provided,” Bruce said. “We don’t consider it luck that Julia’s schedule was a little bit different that morning … we believe it happened for a reason. Sacred Heart needs a lot more therapy dogs.” Jeannine begins to cry. This time, they’re happy tears. “Not only would we love to see more Sprouts roaming around,” she said. “But … we also need more Julias.