When a gunman opened fire inside an El Paso Walmart, killing 22 people and wounding dozens more, scores of first responders stepped up to help the victims.
Their work is taxing, both physically and mentally. To help the paramedics, firefighters, nurses and doctors cope with the incredible stress, trauma and grief in the aftermath of the tragic event, a San Antonio-based health care group deployed a special team of four-legged caregivers.
Methodist Healthcare Systems sent their Emergency Services Facility dog team to El Paso to provide "unconditional love and support" to the heroes who served the community in the wake of the tragic events. Chanel, Lady and Rudy flew to El Paso Sunday and spent the week visiting first responder stations and hospitals throughout the city.
"The response has been great," said Frank Trifilio, an EMS relations manager and Lady's dog handler. "As we go to these dispatch centers, where first responders are operating on site, the reaction is overwhelming. Lots of smiles, lots of bright eyes."
At the Del Sol Medical Center, where 11 of the wounded were treated, including two victims that later died at the hospital, the dogs provided much needed relief.
"Anything that we can do to just to give them a small break," said EMS relations manager and Chanel's handler Brandon Miller. "It's really cool to see even just a nurse who takes a moment to sit down, pet the dog, get up, give that sigh of relief and move to the next one."
Miller notes that first responders, doctors and nurses typically move from one medical emergency to another, and the repeated exposure coupled with demanding schedules can result in emotional trauma.
"They have 10 feet to walk out that door and walk in to the next [patient's] room and make sure that person knows they're the most important person to that nurse, to that doctor or to that tech at that time," Miller said. "It takes a ton of energy."
According to Miller, the rate of suicide among first responders — firefighters, paramedics and law enforcement — has increased in recent years from one every seven days to one a day. He said in emergency rooms across the country there's a big demand for staff to be able to deal with stress and trauma, and he believes the dogs are able to provide that source of comfort.
"There's a real stigma around [suicide] and we hope to use these dogs to talk about the issue and help get them through tough situations," Miller added.
The dogs are rescues from animal shelters and trained by Service Dogs Inc., a non-profit organization that provides service dogs free of charge for people with disabilities, veterans and facility dogs for courthouses and first responders.
Chanel, an almost 2-year-old yellow Lab/Golden Retriever mix, was the first dog to join Methodist Healthcare System's Emergency Services Facility dog team, which launched in May of this year. Rudy and Lady, both 2-year-old yellow Labs, joined the team last month.
"The dogs are trained to seek out people in need and can identify them in a crowd," said Miller, adding that these dogs "can reach places in the heart no human can."
Rudy, Lady and Chanel are able to provide staffers with heartwarming interactions so that they can, in turn, continue providing care for those injured who are still hospitalized.
The dogs are expected to fly back to San Antonio Friday.