Therapy-dog patients help craniofacial patients smile

As we began setting up the sports-themed carnival at Penn, we heard the sound of dogs barking. Just like us, they were getting ready for the exciting and emotional day ahead. The Operation Smile Club from Temple Dental teamed up with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) to help make the sixth annual Best Friends Bash (BFB) spectacular. After seeing child after child smile and laugh on June 2, 2018, the day proved to be nothing short of spectacular.

Every year, the BFB sets out to create a space for craniofacial-different children and their families to belong, have fun and connect with other families and generations facing similar challenges. They share in a similar road of appointments, surgeries, stresses and rejections. The bash is a place where judgment, mirrors and self-awareness are left at the door. Diana Sweeney, one of the co-leaders of the bash says it is a “safe zone,” a place where the kids are just like everyone else. She says there is no need to be shy, feel badly about appearances or feel left out.

The patients from the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at CHOP meet the furry friends from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine that have also had operations, whether it was to their face, jaw or other parts of their bodies. The dogs encourage the kids that they are not alone. Sweeney says, “The dogs are willing to give back the love they receive. There is no craniofacial difference as far as they are concerned.” She says, “If only the world could see it the same way.”

These are specially trained, certified therapy dogs. Many visit CHOP on a regular basis to lay with the children in their hospital rooms. Sweeney says, “I think children with facial differences and dogs with differences relate in a way that we do not always see. You can almost feel a kind of understanding between the two, a kinship born from negativity that turns to strength and positivity.”

Sweeney likes to remain behind the scenes, but none of this could happen without her constant dedication. She, along with Maria Soltero-Rivera, who works from San Francisco, make this event happen. Sweeney is the only parent liaison in pediatric plastic surgery in the country. She is a nonmedical person who advocates daily for the children at CHOP. She is available to the families day and night. She says that sometimes parents have needs that can’t be addressed during business hours, and she wants to be there for them when they do.

Sweeney is a grateful mom of a craniofacial patient for 43 years now. She says, “I never forget to be thankful for all that life has given me and my son. We were the recipients of enormously skilled physicians, when craniofacial surgery was in its infancy. I want to make life as easy as possible for our patients. They need to know that they are so much more than their faces.”

The testimonies from the bash prove the kids do feel a sense of freedom at the event. Sweeney described a special moment when she watched a child who is normally shy play kickball with two older boys. She says, “He laughed and forgot all about his facial differences. Watching him focus on fun instead of his appearance made all of the work worth it. For that short time, he was just like other boys his age: running, kicking, laughing.” She wishes every day could be like that for him. This is the very heart and mission of the BFB. To provide a day for kids to forget their fears, insecurities, exhaustion and mountains, and simply be kids.

Sweeney was more than grateful for the hands-on help from the Temple Operation Smile Club. She says the team was amazing, bringing their own fun projects for the kids. Sweeney says the team added an “enthusiasm that was contagious.” Operation Smile dressed the bare walls of the Vernon and Shirley Hill Pavilion with sports flags and screaming fan posters. The team brought toss games that lead to a treasure chest full of prizes and a table full of cookies and icing for the kids to decorate their own basketballs and footballs. After Philly sleighed sports this year after wins like the Eagles and Villanova, it only seemed appropriate to go full-on sports for the theme.

Sweeney says, “Some of our patients are quite shy, and the Temple dental students related to that, drawing them out to participate and enjoy themselves. I cannot say enough about their contribution. I would be lost without their creativity.” Sweeney says the team exceeded her “wildest expectations.” The bash exceeded all of Operation Smile’s expectations as well.

Anum Ali, the president of Temple’s Operation Smile Club and fourth-year student, wants to expand the event to more families, doctors and volunteers. “I think it is a great event for all ages, and levels of dental professionals to get involved with.” She says, “It’s important for families and kids to interact with each other at events that are light-hearted and full of exciting activities.”

Another Operation Smile member and third-year Temple student, Tanya Aboukaff, says it was a humbling opportunity to meet the kids and parents who have been through hardships regarding oral and facial surgeries. Aboukaff says the BFB, “allows the children to have fun and have a place and time to roam and play and not worry about criticism from others.” For the families, it’s special because they get to see their children having fun and meet other families with similar experiences. The fundraising chair of Operation Smile, Lauren Miller, attended the event for her second year in a row. Seeing all the dogs and kids again was her favorite memory. The third-year says, “The BFB helps families forget about their medical worries and brings together other families going through the same journey.”

Sweeney bases this year’s success on the participation of the patients in the activities and their comfort level during those three hours. She says, “[The patients] were busy the entire time eating, playing games, meeting new friends, enjoying themselves, playing with the dogs without reservation and without waiting for a judgmental look from someone.”

Sweeney says one of the biggest challenges is finding volunteers to participate in the program. But she has found that after a volunteer comes to the bash, they “never want to miss the experience again.” This holds true for Temple Dental’s Operation Smile Club, as they have committed to coming back year after year.

If you want to be a part of next year’s puppy and patient party, don’t hesitate to reach out to Temple’s Operation Smile team for more information.

As for the plans for next year? Sweeney says, “So far, we have theme … outer space! We haven’t really spoken about developing that theme, but I think I will call NASA and see where that gets me.”

I guess the sky’s the limit.

~Angela Walter, Temple ’20, ASDA Contributing Editor

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About Angela Walter

Angela Walter is a third-year dental student at the Kornberg School of Dentistry at Temple University. She is passionate about journalism and using it to make a lasting impact for dental public health. She is an ASDA contributing editor and loves writing messages to motivate her colleagues in the dental profession. She serves as membership chair for her local ASDA chapter and advocates for children with craniofacial differences as the vice president of the Temple Dental Operation Smile Club. Angela invests her weekends at her church as a greeter, photographer and children’s ministry leader. She loves people and loves to serve.

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