A horse is a horse (and so much more to Michigan Medicine patient)

July 8, 2019  //  FOUND IN: News,

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The staff on 6C are used to receiving questions from families about visiting hours, but recently they received their first inquiry about a visiting horse. Even more surprising than the question was the answer staff were able to provide: “Of course you can bring a horse to the hospital!”

The answer may not have come that easily but when social worker Chelsea Mills, who was assigned to 6C that week, learned about a secret plan being hatched by Rebecca Billiel’s mother and a close family friend, she knew she had to find a way to help make it happen.

Rebecca is a 26-year-old patient who’s been fighting a life-long battle with cystic fibrosis, a progressive genetic disease that makes it difficult for her to breathe and fight off lung infections. Rebecca was nearing the end of a second, weeks-long stay at Michigan Medicine when she had a conversation with an old family friend.

“Sue had been sending me videos of Madira to cheer me up,” said Rebecca, referring to Sue Morisse, horse trainer and owner of Madira, a 27-year-old therapy horse Rebecca learned to ride on when she was a little girl.

“I’ve known Madira since I was about six years old,” said Rebecca. “I used to ride her and, together, we would lead walks to raise money for cystic fibrosis.”

In addition to being a therapy horse, Madira is a show horse capable of performing more than 50 different tricks. At the end of each fundraising walk, Rebecca helped Sue and Madira perform shows for event participants.

Then, about 10 years ago, Sue moved to Michigan’s upper peninsula, taking Madira with her. Rebecca hadn’t seen the horse since.

“When Sue shared those videos of Madira with me during my recent hospital stay, it brought back so many great memories,” Rebecca said. “I told her it would be a real dream to have the horse visit the hospital. I was only joking!”

Turning a dream into reality

Little did Rebecca know, that conversation prompted Sue to reach out to her mom and begin working on arrangements to bring the horse to University Hospital. Rebecca’s mom then contacted the charge nurse on 6C who asked social worker Chelsea to get involved.

“I was notified by the charge nurse that Rebecca’s mom wanted a horse to visit her at the hospital,” said Chelsea. “I was in complete shock, wondering how we could possibly get a horse here.”

Chelsea began to research hospital policy and found information about therapy dogs and “mini-horses,” but nothing about full-size therapy horses. She reached out to Patient Relations and Clinical Risk, who contacted the legal and security departments. Before long, the visit from Madira and Sue was approved.

Figuring out the details

“Security had to figure out when the hospital would be least busy, and where the best place would be for the trailer and other logistics,” Chelsea said. “We needed to think about the safety of other patients and families too, so it was decided the Med Inn parking lot on Sunday morning would be best.”

Security sergeant Scott Hale, officer Austin Conway and several colleagues set to work on plans to secure the parking lot and make sure officers would be on hand during the horse’s visit to answer questions from guests and to keep everyone safe.

“This was definitely the most unique visitor request we’ve seen,” said Austin. “But it fit well with our department’s vision of community-based security, allowing us to do something nontraditional and create a positive interaction.”

Once plans were in place, Chelsea gave the go-ahead to Rebecca’s family for the horse to come.

“I had gotten to know Rebecca pretty well in a short amount of time,” said Chelsea. “It was so hard to keep this secret from her!”

The big surprise

Sunday morning rolled around and to Rebecca, it seemed like just another typical day at the hospital.

“I was having my morning physical therapy, doing normal airway clearance and percussion,” said Rebecca. “My mom was visiting that morning and she and the therapist suggested that we go for a walk outside.”

Rebecca’s therapist and mom took her downstairs and walked with her around the courtyard and toward the Med Inn parking lot.

“I saw a horse trailer parked in the lot but didn’t connect the dots at first,” said Rebecca. “Then I saw my dad walk out from behind the trailer and I knew something was going on.”

That’s when Rebecca saw Sue. Tears began to flow as she ran toward Sue and the trailer. And then she saw Madira.

“I gave her such a huge hug,” Rebecca said. “I couldn’t believe I was seeing my long-lost friend at the hospital after not seeing her for so many years!”

That special reunion with Madira meant the world to Rebecca. It also meant a great deal to other patients from her floor who were alerted to the surprise and came down to meet the special visitor.

“One patient from my floor was so happy he started crying,” said Rebecca. “There was lots of smiling and laughing. People were able to pet Madira and ask questions about her.”

Rebecca said she knows Madira likes comforting people and could feel the horse’s energy that day as she sat on her back, riding her from one patient to another.

“I could feel her perk up as we talked to different patients,” she said. “It’s like she can sense the healing impact she’s having on people.”

Rebecca said patients who spend a lot of time in the hospital get used to seeing therapy dogs, but she believes a horse is more powerful because of its size and because, well, you just don’t see horses at the hospital every day.

Madira’s magic

“The whole mood of my hospital floor completely changed that day,” she said. “Everyone was happy. It was so cool. Everybody was in awe, I think!”

Conway witnessed the magic of Madira’s visit that day, too.

“The patient was thrilled to ride the horse and spend time with her,” said Conway. “The reaction of the family was priceless. Visitors and patients walking by were thrilled to witness the reunion and commented about what an amazing thing this was.”

Chelsea was grateful for the opportunity to impact Rebecca — and vice versa.

“Coordinating this surprise is something I will never forget,” said Chelsea. “To hear how happy it made Rebecca and the other patients and their families was amazing. Knowing that, as a social worker, I could bring so much joy and excitement to multiple patients helped me remember why I do what I do and why I love my job so much.”

The visit at the hospital from a horse that holds a very special place in her heart — and has played an important role in her life — is something Rebecca will always remember, too.

“Having Madira visit was definitely a dream,” she said. “I loved watching everyone’s reactions. It was a life-changing day for a lot of those patients … and for me.”