BUFFALO, N.Y. — Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, those who shuffled through hospital doors bore witness to the worst of the disease’s impact.

In a 2020 survey by Mental Health America, 93% of healthcare workers reported experiencing stress, 86% reported anxiety and 76% reported exhaustion and burnout.

A program that brings a few smiles and solace to those in need in the form of a wagging tail and four legs is helping some of them cope with the weight on their shoulders.

Buster and his owner Kristina Young, an SPCA Serving Erie County Paws For Love volunteer, greet hospital visitors and staff outside of Kenmore Hospital on a chilly day.  

Pre-pandemic, Catholic Health would bring therapy dogs into their facilities to help reduce stress and anxiety among patients, staff and visitors.  

At the height, Buster and Kristina pressed pause on visiting until this fall when visitors were allowed back inside.

“As time went on and we were allowing volunteers to come back we really saw that our associates had been through so much and they had a need to have some kind of stress relief during the day,” said Heidi Cornell, Catholic Health director of volunteer services. 

Buster went through training to learn how to behave in hospital settings and remain calm during the steady beeps of equipment and slow drips of IV bags.  

Kristina said that one of the biggest misconceptions is that Buster is a service dog.

"A therapy dog's job is to be around everyone and get petted and so I frequently have people come up to me and say, 'oh I won't touch him because he’s a service dog' and I say, 'no petting him is his job,'" said Young.  

In the midst of some of the hardest moments for families and those caring for patients, Kristina sees how Buster offers relief and a small moment of joy — especially when they would visit the trauma center at ECMC.

“The visitors and families are all very worried because their family members are critically ill," said Young. "People would just light up when they saw him”

“Just the mere concept of having someone who's not judgmental and who is just there to be affectionate and kind, brings smiles to people's faces," she added.

For a more information on the program, click here.