Congratulations! Hutt DHB OT Kerry McKiernan ‘animal-assistance pilot a success for stroke patients’

CONGRATULATIONS! Hutt DHB OT Kerry McKiernan and her dog Ollie after extensive training are taking stroke therapy to new levels.

Like many occupational therapists, Kerry McKiernan works with stroke patients but it’s her different – and animal-centric – approach that is helping set her apart.

For the past few months, she’s been joined on the ward by her chocolate labrador Ollie, an animal-assistance dog trained to work with those recovering from a stroke.

“When someone’s had a stroke it can affect many different things, the physical and the cognitive, so as an occupational therapist I look at how those things impact someone’s functional tasks like getting dressed and going to work. McKiernan said.

“With Ollie, what we do is we’ll work on a particular thing that has been caused by the stroke, something like poor coordination.”

One of McKiernan’s patients at Hutt Hospital, Hapeti Pringle, was a swift convert to the therapy, having had experience with dogs as well as a desire to give her all to rehabilitation.

“I don’t even realise I’m doing it … it goes so fast and you fall in love with him [Ollie] so quickly,” Pringle said.  “He makes my day when he comes in.”

During a typical session with Pringle, McKiernan would outline a specific goal, or goals, to work on, using Ollie to help facilitate the necessary movements.

“What we get her to do is lean over and stroke Ollie, brush him and put treats down. What that is doing is building up that confidence … and from there we are able to move on to tasks like putting shoes on.

“With Ollie, it’s purposeful movement so if you’re throwing a ball you’re still getting the same movement but it’s through something meaningful.

She said being able to play with Ollie, while also getting therapeutic benefits, meant patients were more likely to stick with the necessary tasks.

“It motivates people to do a lot more and I think people aren’t concentrating on having to do a certain number of exercise or else my arm won’t work.”

The pilot scheme at Hutt Hospital is one of the first to have been undertaken in New Zealand, with McKiernan’s aim to see similar programmes established elsewhere.

“We’re not advocating for people to bring their own dogs into work to do this … but at the end of this, I want to put together some guidelines around animal-assisted therapy and stroke rehab and eventually put out an educational tool for therapists in New Zealand.

Stoke Foundation chief executive Mark Vivian was supportive of her work and said it was “awesome” to hear how well it was going.

“We’re finding that stroke is on the public radar a lot more now, and people are thinking up new ways to spread the messages and help stroke survivors.”

With this week being Stroke Week, he said it was a good time for Kiwis to think about their risk of stroke and be proactive in easy health checks.

“One of the best things you can do to lower your risk of stroke is to get a blood pressure check – high blood pressure is the number one cause of stroke. Takes a couple of minutes but could make a lifetime of difference.”

The Stroke Foundation is holding its annual Big Blood Pressure Check on Saturday, where you can get a free blood pressure check at participating Pak’N Save and New World supermarkets.