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Heidi, the (Anatomy) Lab-rador Retriever, Boosts Wellness at Yale School of Medicine

January 12, 2023
by Abigail Roth

Heidi, the Yale Police Department’s (YPD) yellow Labrador Retriever service dog and community engagement ambassador, was a frequent—much appreciated—visitor to the Yale School of Medicine (YSM) campus during the fall semester, especially outside the anatomy lab. Heidi greeted first-year medical students, and many stopped to play with her.

Providing comfort after anatomy lab

Sundari Birdsall, MSW, MPH, RYT500, wellness counselor from the medical school's Student Mental Health & Wellness (SMH&W) Program, came up with the idea for Heidi’s post-anatomy visits. Birdsall then reached out to YPD Officer Rich Simons, Heidi’s “partner,” to coordinate. In explaining the thinking behind her idea, Birdsall says she thought “students could benefit from touching something warm and alive after being in the anatomy lab.” Additionally, she and Lisa Ho, LCSW, YSM’s student mental health & wellness program manager, often brainstorm about “creative ways to support students who wouldn't necessarily seek out therapy or wellness sessions.”

Yale School of Medicine and Yale Mental Health and Counseling (MHC) launched the SMH&W Program in October 2021, to provide YSM students more immediate access to mental health counseling. The program provides access to one-on-one counseling, group counseling, and student wellness activities. In addition to Birdsall and Ho, a third member, Kathlene Tracy, PhD, has joined the team and will be available to meet students starting this month.

Heidi’s post-anatomy visits, Birdsall says, have been effective. As students are petting Heidi, always with hands washed before leaving anatomy, many make informal, reflective comments about their anatomy lab experience, often related to the five senses. For example, they might mention the contrast of Heidi’s warm body to the cold bodies in the anatomy lab, or Heidi’s sense of smell picking up the lingering scents from the lab. Many students simply express relief to see and get to play with Heidi after what can be an emotional experience, with statements such as, “You knew I needed this today." Additionally, the engagement has led several students to pull Birdsall aside and informally debrief, or ask questions about their lab experience.

Because Heidi's visits have been effective, Birdsall plans to expand the initiative in the spring to include anatomy lab visits for both medical students and Physician Associate Program students.

Helping to promote wellness services

Another outreach strategy Birdsall has initiated, in collaboration with Simons and Melanie Norton, MLIS, head of access and delivery services in the Cushing Whitney Medical Library (CWML), relates to the library. Birdsall explains she had been spending lunchtime on Fridays in the library, since the start of the academic year, to promote the SMH&W Program’s services. “Our wellness programming is robust and open to student interests and ideas,” Birdsall says, adding that frequently changing wellness events are posted on a calendar. To make sure students are of aware of these opportunities, “I'd sit for an hour by the circulation desk or outside the library at the time students were leaving class, offering hot cups of tea and info on our program.”

Norton told Birdsall that pre-COVID, the library had had its own therapy dog that students loved, and suggested Birdsall might want to bring a similar dog to the library. Thinking it was a terrific idea, Birdsall reached out to Simons to arrange regular Friday visits.

Birdsall appreciates the time Simons and Heidi devote to YSM. “Despite Heidi’s busy calendar, Rich has done a wonderful job of prioritizing the medical school,” she says. Birdsall explains that she books Heidi a month in advance using the LiveSafe app, “and we have been flexible about cancellations during times when Heidi has been needed somewhere else on short notice.” Simons, who refers to Heidi as his “wonderful best friend,” explains that “Heidi’s mission is to make friends and place smiles on everyone’s faces.”

Birdsall also expresses gratitude for Norton’s support of the CWML outreach initiative—which includes bringing in candy for students and even giving up her chair and desk for Birdsall. Norton says that the CWML staff enjoy having Birdsall, Simons, and Heidi visit weekly, adding, “There is nothing like the unconditional love of a dog.”

Reflecting on Heidi, Birdsall shares, “I've felt Heidi's empathic compassion first-hand.” Simons once gave the command, "Heidi, tell me a story," and, Birdsall explains, Heidi “lay down right on my lap and held still while looking up at me. As I petted her in this position, I started to tear up, seemingly out of the blue! Her caring touch was powerful."

Submitted by Abigail Roth on January 10, 2023