Macaroni and Calamity Jane waited patiently while children touched their ears, bellies and tails at Columbia Memorial Hospital Monday.
The two dogs are comfort therapy animals, and the children met them as part of Operation Bunny Suit, the hospital’s outreach program with local fifth-grade classes.
And students, like Andrew Caruana, learned a lot!
“I learned how to sew up a SpongeBob, and I learned about the types of people who work at the hospital, I learned about a little bit of therapy stuff,” said 10-year-old Caruana.
The program began with students divided into two groups of 60. The first group stayed in the conference room to eat lunch that included turkey, cheese, lettuce and tomato sandwiches, juice or milk, fruit and potato chips. Melissa Morris, a dietitian with the hospital for the last four years, then spoke with the students about healthy eating.
Morris explained the plate method of eating, telling the children half of their plates should be filled with fruits and vegetables. One-quarter belongs to protein, like chicken or fish. The rest can be grains, while a glass of milk, or cheese or yogurt, should be served alongside the meal.
After Morris spoke with the children, it was time to bring in the dogs, who comfort animal lovers in the hospital who are recovering from illness.
Rows of students were excused to pet the dogs before it was time to suit up and head into the hospital, where cauterization was demonstrated on a banana, a scope was used to look inside a box, representing a patient’s insides, and stitches were performed on a sponge patient.
“I think this is a good experience for the kids and a couple of them are actually coming for surgery, I heard, so it just kind of prepares them mentally for what’s going to happen,” said Nurse Anesthetist Mark Finkbeiner from the recovery room, measuring students’ heartbeat and oxygen levels. “Hopefully this will make it easier for them. And if they are interested in the medical field, which some of them think they are, it gives them exposure to the hospital setting.”
Finkbeiner participated last year in the pilot year of Operation Bunny Suit. This year, the program has been developed more fully to include nutrition, respiratory therapy, pet therapy and physical therapy. Finkbeiner has been at the hospital for 16 years, and in anesthesia for 33 years.
“These kids are getting a well-rounded feel for what the hospital is,” he said.
Last year, the first Operation Bunny Suit only hosted Knappa. This year, Astoria School District went first, with 120 students. Warrenton’s 110 students and Knappa’s 45 are scheduled to partake in the coming months.
“I learned that it’s very hard to do surgery and that it’s not a very easy task,” said 11-year-old Taileigh Cole, who added that her favorite part of the day was seeing the dogs.
Her friend Elizabeth Barnett added, “Stitching is very hard!”
Columbia Memorial Hospital Marketing Manager Paul Mitchell organized the event. He said he felt it was successful and will continue to watch it grow.
“I think it went really well. We learned a lot from the pilot program with Knappa last year and we’ve expanded it to include things like nutrition and pet therapy,” Mitchell said. “We learn something new every time.”
The students learned something, too.
“The whole idea is to give them a little exposure to medicine at a young age. And if you just change career goals of one individual, it’s worthwhile,” said staff general surgeon Dr. Richard Crass. “Plus, knowledge is good.”
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.