Healing comfort: Ascension St. Vincent in Fishers kicks off pet therapy program with Paws & Think


A new volunteer at Ascension St. Vincent’s infusion center has been providing patients with the kind of comfort that only a dog can give.

Lulu is a large, black goldendoodle with mounds of soft, curly fur. She is happy to get pets and treats from people going through treatment at the Fishers hospital’s infusion center, and in return, the 75-pound lapdog provides calming, unconditional love to patients.

The hospital partnered with Indianapolis-based nonprofit Paws & Think to bring a pet therapy program to the hospital’s infusion center, where patients receive chemotherapy treatment along with other intravenous therapies.

Sandy Manwaring is the infusion center’s clinical supervisor and spearheaded the effort to bring in therapy dogs.

“I went to a leadership conference in downtown Indianapolis, the convention center, and Lulu was there with Paws & Think,” she said. “I struck up a conversation and I was like, ‘Oh, do you guys go everywhere?’ I found out they do visit hospitals.”

That was April 2023, she said, and it took until January to get all the paperwork signed and sealed, allowing Lulu and other trained therapy dogs to start visiting. Manwaring said she and the center’s staff know how important pets can be for emotional health, pointing to a wall of pet photos — dogs and cats who belong to the center’s employees.

“We are huge dog and animal lovers,” she said. “It brings us joy. So, we knew it would bring the patients joy as well, because the patients walk by here and they want to guess whose animal is whose. We had Lisa bring Lulu out to kind of see how everyone reacted and the patients just loved it.”

Lisa Gupton is Lulu’s owner and co-volunteer. She’s also the program coordinator for the Paws to Heal program at Paws & Think. Manwaring said that Gupton doesn’t just bring the dog — she also talks to and connects with patients.

Manwaring said pet therapy visits can help people get through treatment with a more positive outlook.

“When you’re in here, getting chemo, getting stuff that’s not going to make you feel well, Lulu can turn people around and just make them smile,” she said.

Jenni Pettigrew is among the patients who look forward to visits from Lulu. Pettigrew was diagnosed in October with breast cancer, which spread to her lymph nodes. She’s been going through chemotherapy since November. After completing chemo, she said, she’ll have surgery and radiation treatment, “and then by the end of summer, hopefully, life will swing back to the normal side.”

She said visits from Lulu and other therapy dogs have been a wonderful addition.

“I’m a single mom to an 8-year-old, and we are big dog people,” she said. “So, it’s been wonderful just telling my daughter that Lulu was coming and sending pictures and videos. The staff here is amazing. Amazing. But it’s scary every time you come.”

And Lulu helps take her mind off it, Pettigrew said.

“I think it’s human nature that when we see people, we all just instantly say, like, ‘Oh, how are you?’ And right now, that’s, like, the hardest question when people ask me that because my answer — again, in normal life, everybody just says good, right? But right now, it’s not good,” she said. “It was nice to have Lulu come in and just be (there). I didn’t have to have a conversation or pretend like things were fine.”

Gupton knows what it’s like to spend a lot of time in a hospital environment. She said her son has an autoimmune disorder and was ill for a long time before it was diagnosed.

“He got the benefit of a therapy dog often whenever he was in treatment when he was little,” she said. “We were able to get Lulu and we kind of just decided to (volunteer) to give back once we got him stable enough to have a pet in the house.”

Gupton and Lulu started training and were registered for therapy work when Lulu, now 4, was 16 months old. Gupton later became the program coordinator for the nonprofit’s therapy dog program but continues to volunteer her time taking Lulu into hospitals.

“And now the program is expanding — we reached almost 22,000 lives last year in 2023 just at Ascension hospitals,” Gupton said. “We’ve got about 32 teams altogether that float around Ascension hospitals and various venues.”

Although Gupton and Lulu primarily visit kids at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital, she said she was excited to start volunteering at the Fishers hospital, too, because she lives about 10 minutes away.

“It’s so close for us to pop over,” she said. “We’ve got two other teams that come here, so we’re doing weekly visits to get things started and then we’re hoping to expand into the hospital and more days.”

For more about Ascension hospitals, visit healthcare.ascension.org.

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Jenni Pettigrew, Lulu the therapy dog, and Lulu’s owner, Lisa Gupton, visit in the infusion center at Ascension St. Vincent Hospital in Fishers. (Photos by Leila Kheiry)

Paws & Think programs reach beyond the hospital

Paws & Think, based in Indianapolis, brings people and dogs together in a variety of ways. Its youth-canine programs allow at-risk kids to connect with shelter dogs and provide basic obedience training that can help a dog find its forever home and help the youth learn positive skills.

The organization offers many therapy-dog programs, with trained dogs whose primary job is to provide affection and comfort — something most dogs do very well. Some of the therapy dog programs include Paws to Read — where children can read books to dogs; Paws to Heal — where trained dogs visit healthcare facilities; and Paws to Comfort — where dogs provide support to people who have experienced a traumatic loss.

For more about the nonprofit’s programs, visit pawsandthink.org.