[Noozhawk note: One in a series of articles highlighting Santa Barbara’s Man and Woman of the Year awards. This year’s nomination period is now open.]

Dr. Tessy is everyone’s favorite “doctor” at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital. She makes her rounds through Pediatrics, the ICU and the Pre-Op area, leaving patients relaxed and smiling. Sometimes the best medicine comes at the end of a leash.

A poodle maltese mix, Tessy visits patients with her handlers, Paul and Nadine Melancon. An exceptionally well-behaved and affectionate dog, Tessy is a member of Therapy Dogs International, an organization that evaluates and bestows the seal of approval to potential therapy dogs. The Melancons spent two years preparing Tessy for her hospital visits, making sure she was obedient, able to pass up food or treats, and be immune to loud noises. She undergoes annual health tests and is groomed weekly.

The Melancons underwent their own tests (tuberculosis and flu shots) and background checks in order to meet Cottage Hospital’s stringent standards.

For the last three years, the Melancons and Tessy have been delighting patients young and old, families and the medical staff. Until two months ago, they were accompanied by Toby, a standard poodle, who was a great favorite, but who passed away unexpectedly. Although immensely saddened, the trio have carried on.

Paul, a former aerospace engineer, and Nadine, a business/finance expert, are both seasoned volunteers committed to pet therapy. Paul says that he and Nadine have been lucky in their lives and now want to give their time to others. Nadine chokes up as she describes how proud they are to wear the hospital’s green volunteer smock.

After checking in with the volunteer coordinator, the trio begin their rounds. They honor special requests from patients and pop into Pediatrics where children are hooked up to tubes and other medical equipment. After placing a towel on the patient’s bed, Nadine places Tessy within reach. Then, the cuddling and petting begins. A child terrified by an approaching needle immediately calms at the sight of the little dog. Children, parents and nurses smile broadly, and for a moment, worries and discomfort disappear.

In the ICU, hardworking nurses and stressed family members all brighten visibly when Dr. Tessy visits. Pre-Op patients, nervous about upcoming surgery, are particularly pleased to see her. Paul and Nadine never discuss a patient’s illness, and once Tessy has been placed on a patient’s bed, sit back and allow the chemistry between patient and dog to work its magic. In fact, the magic works so well that one patient clung on tightly, not wanting her to leave.

Paul and Nadine even visit on Christmas Day. With their seven children grown and out of the house, the couple are happy to bring cheer to those in the hospital. They are impressed with the kindness of the nursing staff who do their best to decorate rooms. “Santa Tessy” helps make it a Christmas to remember!

Although the Melancons have other volunteer responsibilities (Paul serves on several boards and Nadine contributes as CFO for a Franciscan organization for $1 per year), they drive from Santa Ynez to the hospital every week. They say that they benefit as much as the patients as they watch Tessy bring a small taste of the outside world, delivered with unconditional love.

                                                                        •        •

Volunteers enrich all our lives.

Do you know a volunteer who has made a significant impact on the Santa Barbara community? You can nominate that person to be the next man or woman of the year! Just fill out a simple nomination form online by clicking here. Nominations are open until Aug. 26. The awards are sponsored by the Santa Barbara Foundation and Noozhawk.

Suzanne Farwell represents the Santa Barbara Foundation.