'You can't help but perk up'
Ailing and alone, Denise Krivach lay at Mayo Clinic thinking the worst — until a ball of fur bounded up onto her bed in what's being described as a life-changing moment.
The 60-year-old, a former Abbott Northwestern physician, was in the early stages of building her dream home in the Montana mountains when she awoke in 2014 and was non-functional. She rejected the initial diagnosis of early onset dementia to seek clarification at Mayo in Rochester.
After months of testing, Mayo specialists finally confirmed autoimmune encephalitis. In short, her immune system was attacking her brain.
Her dreams dashed, Krivach underwent surgery and found herself lying in the hospital to face an uncertain future.
Then Alta, a 4-year-old golden retriever, spent 45 minutes cuddling with her as part of Mayo's growing Caring Canines program. The connection between the two was immediate and has continued to this day.
"It was love at first sight," Krivach said. "It made such a difference in my recovery. Even after they were gone, I could go back to that happy place. I never felt like I was quite alone."
The Caring Canines program was started in 2004 after operating for years informally. A 13-pound miniature pinscher named Dr. Jack was among the best-known of the privately owned service dogs that were brought in to provide emotional support. Dr. Jack, owned by Marcia Fritzmeier, of Rochester, was a facility-based service dog trained to work with patients in their recovery, as guided by doctors and nursing staff.
Dr. Jack's retirement in 2013 (he has since died) closely coincided with Mayo's hiring of Jessica Smidt as healing enhancement therapy coordinator. Smidt, a former vet tech, has embraced the pooch program with gusto, expanding it from six to 30 dogs over the past two-plus years.
The 30 therapy dogs and their handlers spend a couple hours each week connecting with patients throughout the hospital. The expanded roster allowed Smidt's team to report more than 11,000 patient interactions in 2015, totaling more than 2,100 hours of volunteer time.
Alta was trained as a service dog and is Smidt's own pet. She recognized the instant connection between Denise and her golden retriever — but a connection like that, she says, is not all that unusual.
"I would say almost daily Alta and I run into someone in the hospital … and they say, 'This is exactly what I needed,'" Smidt said. "Sometimes there are even tears."
Still, few encounters have been as impactful as Alta with Krivach.
The former physician says that Caring Canines has "given me my life back." She's back on her feet and in a much better state of mind, and she credits Alta for her recovery.
Krivach has also purchased a home in southwest Rochester, eschewing her Montana dream to live in the Med City. Single and childless, she says she has always preferred solitude, but her experience with Alta has made her reconsider that preference, too.
She's in the early stages of seeking out her own canine companion. Naturally, Alta has been placed on a pedestal as the "gold standard." Because of that connection, Smidt is taking the unusual step of assisting Denise find a live-in service dog.
The closest facility that offers trained service dogs is in the Twin Cities. Until her own companion is found, Krivach has offered to walk Alta.
"She steals the show," Krivach said of Alta. "That's really what patients need sometimes, a distraction from their own pain and misery.
"Sometimes being ill, you get too focused on being ill. You don't want that to be who you become. When Alta comes around, you can't help but perk up."