Steamboat Springs When the bottom of Valerie Appell's car literally fell out on the highway as she was driving back to Steamboat Springs from California, she was given a special opportunity to reflect on the time she had just spent with her sick father and to re-evaluate as a 14-year critical care nurse how people often lacked exposure to nature and things reminiscent of their homes when placed in the hospital.
Spending the next day stranded in a hotel room with her dog, Appell wrote a program that would become Heeling Friends of Steamboat, formerly Healing Paws.
Appell's program was designed to bring comfort and mental relief to people in the hospital or care center by visitations with trained pets who could sit calmly and attentively next to a hospital patient. She based the program on her experience with her father in California. Appell said she always felt right at home in a hospital and would bring in her dog to visit her father, who was very sick.
She said her dad would lighten up and say, "Who is here? Is that my Socksie?"
It was a relief, she said, to her father not having to talk or think about being sick.
Appell used this experience and her love of people and her dogs as a springboard to create the Heeling Friends program.
Appell presented the program to Yampa Valley Medical Center staff members, and they were willing to give it a try. After she started to make visits to patients, the impact it had was noticeable.
"There something visceral when a person touches a pet," she said. "People are more well when allowed to interact with nature."
When Appell's visits to the hospital proved successful, she went to her neighbors and asked for them to be a part of the program.
Lynnette Weaver and her dog, Zirkle, were one of the original neighborhood teams that became a part of the group.
"It's an amazing organization," Weaver said. "There is a tremendous sense of satisfaction when the minute you walk in a room a person's face lights up."
Weaver said Appell has been a source of energy and motivation and that Heeling Friends has been a true passion for her. She said Appell's full-time focus on the program has resulted in its widespread success, having currently 18 dog and owner teams with new implemented programs at facilities including Morning Star, Horizons, senior housing centers and a reading program with children at Soda Creek Elementary.
Although Appell said she would love to expand the program to include visits with trained cats, the potential to expand the program is now in the hands of the Heeling Friends board members as Appell and her husband have recently decided to move to a warmer climate for their retirement years.
Appell said leaving Steamboat will be one of the hardest things she has done.
Weaver's participation in the program will be more key now as she has taken Appell's position as director.
"It won't be the same without her," Weaver said, "but I'm sure Valerie and her dog, Grady, will be making visits to the hospital whenever they get to Steamboat."