BEMIDJI, Minn.—In a subdued wing of Sanford Bemidji Hospital, Skye and Hero were bursts of energy.
The affable golden retriever and chihuahua and their owners roamed the hospital's acute rehab unit, popping into patients' rooms for enthusiastic meet-and-greets on a gray evening in early December. The dogs' visits aim to repair a sense of normalcy and wellbeing for patients who might spend weeks away from home—and their own pets—as they recover from strokes, brain injuries, heart attacks or surgery.
"Can I take him home?" patient Jon Kerth joked moments after Skye waggled into his room with owner Tracy Parthun in tow. Kerth was on the last leg of a two-week stint in the rehab unit after a heart attack. The dogs visit for about an hour on Thursdays, squeezing into patients' schedules between a series of intense rehab sessions and dinner.
"They work you," Kerth joked. A Bemidji resident, he said he recognized Hero and owner Ethan Larson from their walks near his home. Kerth said he didn't have any pets of his own, but recalled a toy pekingese from his childhood.
A few minutes later, patient Debbie Kingbird held Hero in her lap and gently rubbed the dog's paw as she gabbed with Parthun and Larson. A stroke landed Kingbird in the rehab unit more than a month earlier, but she was set to head home to Mahnomen the day after the dogs' visit.
"I've come a long, long way," Kingbird said.
Hero, as well as Larson's two other chihuahuas Shiloh and Diego, take turns each week visiting patients, and Larson said patients and hospital staff like to guess which dog he'll bring next. He and Parthun, who occasionally brings her elderly corgi Cigyn (pronounced "Keegan"), are both trained Sanford volunteers and part of the Paul Bunyan Dog Training Association, which teaches other pooches how to be therapy dogs like Skye and Hero.
Larson put his first dog, Diego, through therapy dog training after his grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease several years ago, and the pair regularly visited her in her assisted living facility.
Parthun's family has been raising golden retrievers such as Skye for decades, and she said she sees her volunteer work at Sanford as outreach, a sort of ministry, and a way to share her love of dogs with others.
"I just feel really blessed when I can see a smile on someone else's face that's maybe been hospitalized dealing with pain, dealing with maybe not progressing far in their rehabilitation process," Parthun said.
"It's basically paying it forward," Larson said.