by Traci Chapman, Staff Writer
Jean Ann Widdifield might not be your average nurse – like many people, she does moonlight separately from her regular “day job,” but it’s what she does in that second endeavor that is a bit different. Widdifield has a partner named Lilly.
And, while Lilly might not have a nursing degree or even be able to speak, she certainly has something special – and she spreads joy and healing to all she comes in contact with.
Lilly is a therapy dog, someone who has transformed not only Widdifield’s life and nursing career, but also the days and memories of countless others who have benefited from her warmth and calm presence.
Long before Lilly came into Widdifield’s life, though, nursing has been an integral part of everything she is, she said. Now celebrating her 31st year in the field, the long-time Russell-Murray Hospice director of corporate compliance attended Redlands Community College back when it was El Reno Junior College, earning an associates degree in nursing. She became an RN in 1986.
Getting that particular degree was not exactly what Widdifield had planned. Growing up, the young girl always wanted to be a teacher; when she had the chance to go to college, she chose nursing, in part due to the inspiration of her grandmother, who was a nurse.
“I looked at it as I could become a nurse and still teach,” she said. “As a nurse, you are always teaching a patient/family member something – I also did some teaching with the LPN students with their clinicals, I really enjoyed that but didn’t have enough school to do that full time but had enough that I could teach clinical with LPN students.”
Widdifield began her own career as a nursing assistant at Parkview Hospital – now Mercy El Reno Hospital – while still attending classes. After graduation, she remained at Parkview until 1991, when she made the move to Russell-Murray.
The two sides of Widdifield’s nursing life are very different – her administrative role at Russell-Murray is very focused on that hospice organization’s staff and volunteers.
“Being corporate compliance director is actually fun – I keep all of the employee files up to date, make sure we are following the HIPPA, OSHA and labor laws, I assist in orientation of new employees,” Widdifield said. “I am also the director of volunteers, and I am always looking for new volunteers.”
But, with Lilly, Widdifield’s focus is much different. Together, the pair visit patients of all ages and with all kinds of health challenges and conditions, from children in the hospital to hospice patients facing their last days. Widdifield and Lilly are regulars at Mercy Kingfisher Hospital and Canadian Valley Integris Hospital, she said.
Lilly is also a favorite at El Reno’s Lincoln Learning Center, where special needs students learn through spending time with the gentle sheltie and her “mom.”
Wherever they go, Widdifield said she can sense a difference in those who come into contact with Lilly.
“It is a proven fact that petting a dog will help a person relax and will lower their blood pressure – and, she always gets a smile from them,” she said.
Widdifield became involved in therapy dog treatments in 2010, when she started utilizing her first love, Daisy. Russell-Murray had a request for a therapy dog, and the hospice didn’t have access to one – so Widdifield volunteered to take Daisy to visit the patient, and that was it – both were hooked. “She was a natural at it and loved visiting everyone,” she said.
After Daisy passed away, Widdifield said she was not only heartbroken to lose her friend and companion – she didn’t want to stop providing the care and joy that came with therapy dog treatments.
“When Daisy died, I missed her so much and was lost without a dog,” she said. “I checked the newspaper daily and friends kept giving me websites to check for sheltie’s – I finally found Lilly through a site called Pure Bred Breeders.”
It seemed to be fate – Lilly was in Broken Arrow. Widdifield drove there to pick her up and bring her own. She was eight weeks old and weighed five pounds. That was in January 2014.
“She has been making visits since the day I got her,” Widdifield said.
Her long-time employers at Russell-Murray have been instrumental in the success of Widdifield and Lilly’s therapy efforts, she said.
“I am blessed to work for a company that allows me so much freedom in what I do, like taking Lilly out to see people,” Widdifield said. “They don’t have to be a hospice patient for Lilly to visit – she will go visit anyone that wants a visit from her and me.”
While Widdifield said she planned to retire as a full-time hospice nurse sometime in the next three or four years, she had absolutely no plans to leave her volunteer work with Lilly behind – and, in fact, she plans to expand their visits as they have more time.
“I want to just volunteer with Lilly, visiting the hospice patients, nursing home patients and hospital patients,” Widdifield said. “I’ve been really lucky in my career – to have a career I really enjoy working as a hospice nurse, and having lots of fun taking Lilly to visit, I’m just really fortunate.”