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Loveable Labradoodle helps critically ill Evie in NHS first

A young Addenbrooke’s patient who came close to death after a serious infection is home and looking forward to Christmas – following help from a lovable Labradoodle called Poppy.

Patient Evie Evans in her wheelchair with PAT volunteer Sue, Physio Jonny and PAT dog Poppy
From left - Lisa, Evie, Poppy the labradoodle and Jonny.

Evie Evans, 13, was unable to walk after significant muscle weakening following two months of heavy sedation. Now she is back on her feet after what’s thought to be the country’s first NHS paediatric physiotherapy project involving a dog.

The project started as a three-month pilot in the summer, but is now permanent. It follows a successful trial with adult patients, Addenbrooke's volunteers and Pets As Therapy (opens in a new tab) (PAT) launched last year. Working with PAT dogs has been shown to motivate patients to stretch themselves further during their physiotherapy.

Mum Sara, who watched Evie’s progress over several weekly sessions at the hospital gym, said: “Poppy the PAT dog got Evie to do things she wouldn’t have done otherwise – we call it ‘Poppy power’!

It was because Poppy was there that Evie first stood with her at the parallel bars. Eventually she found the courage to hold Poppy’s lead and walk along. It was an amazing moment for everyone.

Sara Evans, Evie's mum

Evie, who has Down syndrome, was taken by PaNDR – the specialist ambulance for children who are critically ill - from Harlow to Addenbrooke’s in July. She had a serious respiratory infection with complications and needed to be heavily sedated to help her recover.

After an eight week battle to save her, critical care clinicians were able to bring Evie around, and start the long process of getting her back to health. She was hoisted out of bed, so she could build up her muscles and learn to walk again.

WATCH - left to right: Lisa Smart (PAT volunteer), Poppy the PAT dog, Evie Evans, Jonny Littlewood, paediatric physiotherapist


Pets as therapy video transcript:

00:00:00:24 - 00:00:05:05
So I volunteer here at Addenbrooke's as a pet as therapy volunteer with Poppy.

00:00:05:24 - 00:00:11:13
We come here every Tuesday and we specialize with the pediatric team

00:00:11:21 - 00:00:14:20
and particularly the pediatric physiotherapy team.

00:00:15:16 - 00:00:16:20
Jack and I have been volunteering

00:00:16:20 - 00:00:20:12
at Addenbrooke's for about five years now since he was two.

00:00:20:22 - 00:00:22:23
So I decided to become a volunteer.

00:00:22:23 - 00:00:27:02
I saw an advert in the paper, a news article.

00:00:27:06 - 00:00:30:19
There was a pet therapy dog that was also a labradoodle.

00:00:31:04 - 00:00:34:10
And I looked and thought, actually, poppy would be fantastic

00:00:34:10 - 00:00:36:22
at this because she's so calm and relaxed.

00:00:37:14 - 00:00:41:06
I decided to become a panel chair because my daughter was working here

00:00:41:06 - 00:00:44:09
at Addenbrooke's on one of the wards, and she described

00:00:44:09 - 00:00:47:09
how the atmosphere changed when the PAT dogs came onto the ward

00:00:47:22 - 00:00:49:24
and she came home and said, Dad, you got to do it.

00:00:50:13 - 00:00:52:13
During our visit sessions with their pet dogs,

00:00:52:13 - 00:00:55:07
we tend to get them involved in any way we can to support

00:00:55:20 - 00:00:59:01
pushing the patient towards that kind of goals and that physiotherapy.

00:00:59:01 - 00:01:00:10
So we might get them involved

00:01:00:10 - 00:01:03:05
in helping the child reach more when they're doing some stroking.

00:01:03:10 - 00:01:06:04
We might get them using the lead to walk with the dogs as well.

00:01:06:19 - 00:01:11:10
So sitting next activities up to ending and we also do some throwing activities

00:01:11:10 - 00:01:13:19
with Poppy on the lead as well to try and encourage

00:01:13:19 - 00:01:16:08
the use of that upper limb, but also that that trunk and core.

00:01:17:07 - 00:01:17:23
I think it's just

00:01:17:23 - 00:01:23:06
a really amazing privileged opportunity to be able to go onto the wards

00:01:23:06 - 00:01:27:01
and put smiles on young people's faces.

00:01:27:23 - 00:01:30:17
I enjoy seeing Jack greeting the patients

00:01:30:24 - 00:01:33:10
and their reaction when he goes up and says hi,

00:01:34:06 - 00:01:38:03
and he loves going on the outpatients areas because he can go around

00:01:38:12 - 00:01:41:02
and make a fuss of people and they make a fuss of him.

00:01:42:09 - 00:01:44:21
So from a clinical perspective, with the PAT dogs working

00:01:44:22 - 00:01:47:09
in our physiotherapy sessions, we found that the children

00:01:47:10 - 00:01:49:00
are much more motivated to engage.

00:01:49:00 - 00:01:51:00
They absolutely love the sessions.

00:01:51:00 - 00:01:54:07
They tend to push themselves harder, which families are fed back to us as well,

00:01:54:12 - 00:01:57:14
and we find that they're achieving their goals quicker, which for us is great

00:01:57:15 - 00:01:59:17
because it means that they're getting to where they want to be.

00:01:59:17 - 00:02:02:06
They're having more fun in the sessions and more motivated,

00:02:02:13 - 00:02:05:13
and I think we're kind of pushing towards maybe getting earlier discharges

00:02:05:13 - 00:02:06:12
from that perspective as well,

00:02:06:12 - 00:02:09:05
because they're getting to where they need to be sooner to get home.

00:02:10:02 - 00:02:12:09
The greatest thing is, particularly when your working

00:02:12:10 - 00:02:15:01
with patients where you see them week in, week out,

00:02:15:11 - 00:02:18:06
that you see their progression over the weeks,

00:02:18:06 - 00:02:27:03
which is amazing.

The plucky teenager joined the pilot project led by paediatric physiotherapist Jonny Littlewood and his team, with PAT volunteer, Lisa Smart, and nine-year-old Poppy, who for three years have been cheering up patients elsewhere in the hospital.

Evie, who was one of the first patients to benefit, started her treatment sitting with Poppy, gently throwing a ball, and reaching out with treats, or a pat. Eventually she took a walk with the help of Jonny, Lisa, Poppy, and the parallel bars. To encourage Evie to take those first steps, her physio team also promised to perform Beyoncé’s iconic dance to Single Ladies – a promise they later fulfilled to the delight of Evie.

Her courage blossomed and, despite many challenges, Evie is now at home and will walk to the dinner table this Christmas Day with the aid of her sticks and loving family.

The paediatric physiotherapy team have helped nearly 40 young patients with brain injuries, broken bones, developmental impairments, diseases and muscle weakness like Evie’s.

Poppy the PAT dog

Jonny said: Poppy’s skills alongside owner Lisa’s wonderful guidance in motivating children has been coined ‘Poppy power’.

Poppy is an endearing curly-haired Labradoodle and is such a happy girl, bringing with her an infectious energy. Poppy adapts to each child, and is able to push patients harder to achieve their therapy goals more quickly.

Jonny Littlewood, paediatric physiotherapist

Lisa added: “It is an absolute privilege to be able to go into hospital and work with children in need, as well as adults.

Sometimes they are at their darkest times, and to put a smile on a child's face – and that of their parents, nurses and doctors – is an absolute privilege.

Lisa Smart, PAT volunteer

Sara explained: “When Evie first got to Addenbrooke’s doctors decided they had to intubate her. She had parainfluenza and she ended up getting cellulitis at one point too.

“At one stage she was on the maximum oxygen, they proned her even though they don’t normally prone children. They were at the end of everything they could do.

“However, eventually Evie pulled it back and we could not be more proud of what she has achieved – or grateful to those who have helped. That includes Poppy.”

Anyone who is interested in becoming a volunteer should visit the Trust’s dedicated volunteering website (opens in a new tab)

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