Jim McAtee and his dog, Nemo, are partners in service. On Thursday evenings, the duo entertains patients at PCMH Children’s Hospital, as part of the Animal Assisted Therapy Program.
Their visits usually last an hour. “We have a lot of fun and during that hour the kids forget they are in the hospital,” McAtee said. “So do I.”
McAtee’s service commitments are a priority in his life, despite the obvious time constraints of a full time job he loves and his work towards an MBA at ECU. As assistant director for Career Services and liaison to the College of Fine Arts and Communication, McAtee spends his days working to instill confidence. He aims to motivate students to realize their potential so they can compete in today’s world. With Nemo, McAtee leaves that world behind.
“When I visit the children at the hospital with Nemo, I forget about the research, papers, exams, my packed schedule and the evening lectures I give to ECU classes,” he said. “I get to just hang out with my dog and the kids.”
“Being in a hospital can be a frightening time for children,” McAtee said. Recalling his own youthful pneumonia induced hospital stay; he remembers feeling, “it was the most foreign place I had ever seen.”
“Nemo’s visits help connect patients, especially those who are suffering from chronic illness, to the outside world,” McAtee said. “The unconditional love he offers contributes to the emotional and physical healing process.”
Scientific studies show the use of therapy dogs helps reduce stress for pediatric patients and their families.
Additional studies prove that dogs encourage conversation and motivate patients during physical therapy.
When Nemo visits, hospital staff members escort the patients into a large playroom where the level of interaction “depends on the kids and why they are there,” McAtee said. On the Thursday prior to the 2007 Super Bowl, they all wanted to know which team Nemo favored.
McAtee asked, “Nemo, are you pulling for the Bears?” No response. “Are you pulling for the Colts?” To the delight of his audience, Nemo gave McAtee a furry high five.
A self-proclaimed dog lover, McAtee adopted the two-year-old Bassett Hound/Lab mix last year. When he encountered difficulty convincing Nemo to walk on a leash, he enlisted the aid of the Pitt County Humane Society, where he also volunteers. Susan Molloy, now president of the society, guided McAtee and Nemo through basic behavior training. McAtee then registered with the Delta Society, which helps pet owners train animals for the role of animal assisted therapy.
Delta’s founders emphasize the quality of the relationship between pet owners, pets, and care givers.The “delta” name is based on this triangle.
“The Delta Society administers a skill test and a Pet Partners team evaluation to ensure the handler and animal are trained and qualified for work in the area where the team will be volunteering,” McAtee said. McAtee was responsible for training Nemo to the point that he could pass the evaluations to be registered as an animal assisted therapy dog.
“The evaluator put Nemo through skill and aptitude exercises to assess his temperament and reaction to loud noises, groups of people and medical equipment,” like the wheelchairs often used in a hospital environment, McAtee said.
“I was assessed for control of Nemo, my reaction to patients and difficult situations we may encounter.” After a hospital orientation, background check and health screening, the partners were ready for service.
McAtee has always had an inclination to serve others. He grew up in a single parent home with three younger siblings. He worked odd jobs to help keep the family functioning. “Through my journey from a small town in Pennsylvania to New York, to Florida and finally North Carolina, a lot of people have helped me along the way,” he said.
“Now that I am in a position to help other people, I think about those times and where I might be without those influences. I want to reciprocate when I can.”