Special Honors: Psychiatric Nurse goes to Tess Searls Photo by Jay Paul
When Tess Searls started working at the Virginia Treatment Center for Children in 2000, the psychiatric program often used seclusion and restraint for behavioral intervention. "That is not what we wanted for our children," the 53-year-old nurse clinician says of the controversial treatment method.
By helping to implement policies such as 24-hour parent visitation, Searls contributed to changing the hospital's philosophy and practice. Now, the treatment center is seclusion- and restraint-free. "When the children are at the hospital, they're at their most vulnerable," she says of the center that provides inpatient acute-care crisis stabilization and a spectrum of outpatient mental health services for children and adolescents ages 3 through 17. "They really need lots of love."
In January 2009, Searls found a way to bring more love into the hospital. Bahia, a golden retriever lab mix, has been coming to work with her every day for the past four years. "We didn't want to have a dog here as a novelty act," she says. "We wanted a dog as a real part of the team."
The 7-year-old therapy dog accompanies children to procedures such as X-rays, blood work and MRIs. Additionally, Bahia is called on as a source of comfort when the children are feeling stressed or disorganized. "People have often been very scary for the children we take care of, but when they're around the dog, they can relax," Searls says, adding that research shows that stress hormones, cortisol levels, blood pressure and pulse change when hospital patients are in the presence of a dog.
"Tess has done an excellent job in developing our current program," says Dr. Neil Sonenklar, who works with Searls at the treatment center. "She and her therapy dog have been really helpful with the patients."