Wonder Dog

Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children’s furry employee, Tucker, brightens patients’ lives during difficult times.
Tucker the dog helps Tina Fao heal during her stay at Kapiolani Medical Center.

Photo by Rae Huo

The last thing one might expect to see at a hospital is a big, fluffy golden retriever bounding down the hallway. For the patients and staff at Kapiolani Medical Center, however, Tucker is a welcome sight. Monday through Friday, the 2-year-old canine, a donation from Maui-based Hawaii Canines for Independence (HCI), visits with the hospital’s young patients as part of its animal-assisted therapy program.

Tucker’s handler/owner and Kapiolani ICU supervisor Ellie Taft-Reinebold explains that Tucker’s unique disposition destined his fate as the state’s only pediatric-facility dog: “Of the 1 percent of service dogs HCI graduates, Tucker was exceptional. His intelligence, emotional sensitivity and mellow demeanor allow him to bond with many children while also being able to handle the level of everyday stress that comes with the job.”

On the day of our visit, Tucker met Christie-Ann Fao of Ewa Beach. Tina, as she’s known, was in the hospital recovering from an attack by two pit bulls only a week earlier. Tucker was the first dog she had seen since the incident. Taft-Reinebold told Tina about Tucker while he waited patiently in the hallway: “I have a puppy that is very nice and went to school for a year to learn to be a nice dog. I know you had a bad experience, but if you’d like, I’ll show you my very nice dog and he can stay outside the room until you feel comfortable.”

Tina’s response? “Well, if he’s nice …”

By the end of the visit, Tina had cuddled with Tucker, let him lick her face and even helped brushed his teeth. Tina’s mother, Tammy Duncan, had tears in her eyes. “She is just so strong,” Duncan said. Even Taft-Reinebold was impressed with Tina’s bravery. “But that’s what Tucker can do,” she said.

“He brings smiles to these kids’ faces,” Taft-Reinebold says. “He changes the whole dynamic because the child’s focus is on something else. They get to play. For their parents, it’s a sigh of relief to see that their child’s day is made better.”

The hospital’s many return patients, including children coming in for chemotherapy treatments, look forward to seeing Tucker. He walks the children to their treatments and is there waiting for them when they get out. Unlike other hospitals, which have occasional animal-assist visits, Tucker’s daily presence is a constant during difficult times for the children.

 “Tucker transcends all that we know in medicine,” Taft-Reinebold says. “There’s a connection there, an energy exchange between him and the child” that makes things seem less scary and painful.

Three days a week Tucker also assists the hospital’s physical therapy department, helping the children through tough rehabilitation sessions. A young boy who recently had one of his legs amputated, for example, is more eager to learn to walk on crutches if Tucker walks beside him.

In the halls of the hospital, Tucker is a genuine canine celebrity.

When he’s off the clock, Tucker loves being a beach and water dog in Waimanalo. He even surfs, stand-up paddles and canoes with Taft-Reinebold and her family.

“But on Monday morning when I grab my keys, he’s excited,” Taft-Reinebold says. “He’s ready to get to work.”        

To make a donation to the Kapiolani Health Foundation, visit www.kapiolani.org.