Hippity, Hoppity, Rabbits on Their way

By Claire Stuart
Winchester Medical Center’s popular animal assisted therapy program has been around for over 20 years. Most people are familiar with therapy dogs, but bunny rabbit therapy isn’t as well known.
Rabbits come courtesy of Tom and Lynn Miller of Berryville, who became involved with rabbits in the 1990s when their now-grown children were in the 4-H rabbit program.
Lynn Miller has raised rabbits for 15 years and shown them since 2004. Her rabbits are fancy breeds like French Lops, Angoras and Lionheads, in all colors, shapes and sizes. Some are not even immediately recognizable as rabbits!
Rabbits have been with the hospital’s animal-assisted therapy from almost the beginning. Lynn Miller explained, “In the second year of the program, they had a lady who volunteered with a rabbit. It was successful, so they wanted more.”
That same volunteer approached the Miller children at the county fair and asked them to become junior volunteers. However, an adult had to accompany them, thus bringing their parents into the program. When their children reached high school and became interested in other activities, their parents continued with the hospital visits.
Cindy Newcomb of Berryville is one of the volunteers with the rabbit therapy program. Anyone who grew up in Clarke County probably knows Newcomb, who retired several years ago after teaching at Clarke Elementary for 40 years. She taught three of the Miller children and reconnected with Tom Miller in a Bible study class, and he asked her if she’d like to volunteer. Other volunteers are Gary Paulson and Lois Hitchcock.
The volunteers visit different parts of the hospital. Once a week, Newcomb comes to the hospital and visits the 4th floor.
“We put the rabbits on carts and take them around,” she said. “They have their own volunteer identification badges with their names and pictures. The rabbits are the most docile animals I’ve ever been around, and they love the attention of the patients.”
Newcomb reported that the rabbits wore Santa hats for Christmas, and that they have some costumes that they wear for various holidays. The rabbits are rotated so that the same ones do not visit every week. A group of new rabbits will be certified in June.
“Tom hopes to get more volunteers, since he has plenty of rabbits,” she said. “Right now, we visit one day a week.”
With additional volunteers, they could add more days and/or expand the amount of territory they cover in the hospital, including Rehabilitation Services on Cork Street.
Patients, both adults and children, love the rabbits. “And the nurses do, too. They know them by name. The nurses fight over them,” laughed Newcomb. “They need therapy, too!”
Newcomb is not bound by any time limit for a visit with a patient, and patients can have rabbits on their beds. “Some patients just want to pet the rabbit for a few minutes, others want more time,” she said. “I spent about 15 minutes in two rooms last night. I don’t pace myself or just see so many. “
Tom Miller explained that the rabbits have to be tested for temperament and get checked by a veterinarian. Most of the rabbits they use are French Lops, a very large breed.
“Our contacts in the rabbit show world allow us access to about half a dozen different rabbit breeds, where we can pick the rabbits with the best personalities,” he said. “I’ve never had a problem with a rabbit.”
He went on to say that nurses alert the volunteers when a patient has some special needs. “The patient might be blind or might not speak English, or might be depressed and need some cheer. Some people get few visitors and they enjoy the company. The volunteers talk with them. We’ve even been invited into a room when a patient has passed away and the family is there. The rabbits seem to be able to offer comfort and distraction.”
And, as Lynn Miller noted, “Some people, especially children, are afraid of dogs, but everybody loves bunny rabbits.”
Newcomb related a funny experience she had while taking a rabbit into a room. “A little boy was watching from a doorway across the hall where he was visiting his grandmother. I heard him tell her that he was going to go across the hall and pet the rabbit. The grandmother told him, ‘You stay right here. You know that there are no rabbits in a hospital!’  Boy, did we surprise her!”
Added Newcomb, “What touches me the most is when people say, ‘This is the best thing that happened to me today. It made me smile.’ People are so appreciative of the rabbits. This is as rewarding to me as it is for the patients. I come home every Monday evening glad that I went!”