From Cancer Patient to Pet Therapy Volunteer

By Wendy Bacigalupi-Bednarz, Editorial Contributor

Sabrina Tiedemann adopted Casey when the pitbull-boxer-greyhound mix was an 8-week-old puppy. He was the runt of the litter that nobody else wanted, but Tiedemann immediately felt a connection. Over the years, she came to know his gentle personality and playful moods. But she had never seen him act the way he did on that Sunday morning in February 2013.

On most days, Casey served as an alarm clock, never allowing her to oversleep. That day, though, he lay next to her with his head on her chest and refused to move. "This was something he never, ever did," she recalls. As Tiedemann turned over to get up, she felt a sharp pain in her right breast. That's when she discovered the lump.

Intuition, “almost a sixth sense,” told Tiedemann the lump was cancer. Her suspicion was confirmed within two weeks. At age 36, doctors diagnosed Tiedemann with BRCA2 positive borderline stage 3 invasive ductal carcinoma breast cancer. She remembers only three words from the conversation with her doctor: “You have cancer.”  In shock, she went home and found Casey waiting for her as if he, too, had received the news.  From that moment on, she says, “he became even more in tune with me.”

Tiedemann tackled her cancer treatment at Orlando Health UFHealth Cancer Center.  She underwent chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, four reconstructive surgeries and an oophorectomy to remove her ovaries.  Through it all, she maintained a positive attitude and an unshakeable sense of strength.

Her strength did not go untested, however. While recovering in the hospital after surgery, she dreaded evenings and weekends. They felt long, lonely and isolating, and gave her plenty of time to worry. “After visits, when everyone went home, I felt alone … stuck in my room with my thoughts,” she recalls. “I missed my family, my friends and my dog.”

Then she received an unexpected visit in her hospital room … From a dog.

“After surgery, I was in my room when I saw a dog pass by my door.” The dog, a German shepherd named Thor, was part of Orlando Health’s volunteer pet therapy team. Thor and his handler spent time with Tiedemann, who found comfort in petting the dog and talking about “things other than cancer.” She felt relief and a sense of normalcy returning. For the first time in a long while, Tiedemann smiled.

 Cancer treatment begins at the hospital and continues at home.  So does a new sense of normal that shifts – often – between optimism, anxiety, depression and exhaustion.  Casey always picked up on these shifts, says Tiedemann. “While I was going through treatments, Casey sensed my angst and alerted to it.” Interactions with her dog felt therapeutic, calmed her down and allowed her to regroup.  It reminded her of that first hospital visit from Orlando Health’s pet therapy volunteers.

As Tiedemann continued through treatment and was declared clear of her cancer, she set her sights on building a new chapter in life. She and Casey would pay it forward by helping other Orlando Health patients fight the feelings of isolation that sometimes come with hospital stays.

Tiedemann and Casey trained through Alliance for Pet Therapy Dogs. As a certified pet therapy team, they began visiting assisted-living patients.  “On our first visit, I knew this is what Casey and I were meant to do,” she says.  Patients responded well to the duo. “Patients especially took a liking to him. One would not let go of his leash and just kept petting him. The comfort Casey gave to her was just amazing.”

After celebrating her 40th birthday cancer-free, Tiedemann and Casey qualified for the Paws for Hope Pet Therapy Program at Orlando Health.  As one of its 60 certified pet-therapy teams, the pair visits patients in Orlando Health’s facilities at least twice a month, providing the same comfort and companionship Tiedemann received just a couple of years ago.

Their favorite times to volunteer, she says, are “evenings and weekends, of course!”

“These are the loneliest parts of the week for a patient,” she says, recalling her own experiences. “As pet therapy volunteers, Casey and I hope to change that.”