When Sydney McMahan had surgery to remove a brain tumor in 2013, she was unable to sit up — much less walk.
The Keller student faced daunting rehabilitation, an intimidating prospect for a child who was enrolled in the talented and gifted program at Hidden Lakes Elementary School.
But Sydney — whose favorite things in the world are dogs and learning — was a perfect candidate for Baylor Health Care System’s Animal Assisted Therapy program.
A simple game of hide-and-seek or chase or fetch with a volunteer dog is really a way of getting Sydney to move without feeling self-conscious or thinking she’s having to work hard.
“Sydney wouldn’t be able to feel normal without the dogs,” said her mother, Cheryl. “The dogs make her feel like a normal third-grader.”
Nine-year-old Sydney agreed, saying, “I love my therapy dogs. Therapy is easier with them there.”
On a recent Monday, mother and daughter came for Sydney’s weekly speech, physical and occupational therapy session at Our Children’s House at Baylor Regional Medical Center at Grapevine.
When a black Labrador retriever named Walker came in, the room that can be a little scary transformed into a welcoming sanctuary.
“I love animals, mostly dogs,” Sydney said between hugs and kisses.
The therapy dogs not only have aided in Sydney’s “miraculous” progress, her mother said, but were a springboard for a school assignment.
McMahan explained that her daughter, who returned to school last fall, was asked to do a science project. The family, including her dad, John, and sister, Kennedy — a sixth-grader — searched the Internet and elsewhere for ideas.
Finally, Sydney’s mother asked her to look inside for something personal.
Sydney looked at her mother and asked: “Do therapy dogs make kids smarter and stronger?”
“We had our theme,” Cheryl McMahan said.
Sydney’s project involved a three-panel cardboard display with data and pictures. Although her mother said she did the poster work, the information was all Sydney’s doing.
“She did it all,” McMahan said. “I just drew and typed. But those are her words.”
Sydney said she chose the topic because she “noticed that I do a lot better after the therapy dogs have visited me. I feel like I can do more and do it better.”
But she wondered if it was true for other kids.
Sydney’s entry was loaded with details, such as how healthcare professionals have noticed that animals can relieve stress, lower blood pressure and make people happier. She highlighted how therapy dogs are used to help children with speech and emotional problems. She said therapy dogs also help physical therapists and social workers with their patients to increase their clinical goals, like increased mobility or improved memory.
“Some nurses say that people need less pain medicine when dogs visit them,” Sydney said. “The therapists told me that therapy dogs definitely help their patients. The dogs keep the kids motivated and alert.”
Staff and volunteers at Our Children’s House in Grapevine helped provide research.
“We came up with a survey sheet and made sure we had a control,” Sydney said. “My control is the therapy that kids get from their therapist without dogs around. After the dog is brought in, I wanted to see if kids did the same therapy better.”
The monthlong project involved about 20 experiments.
“My experiment tested how kids in physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy did better after having a therapy dog visit,” Sydney said.
To ensure the experiment was fair, she conducted a test run before the therapy dog was brought in.
“Comparing the results, kids did 38 percent better in speech therapy, 43 percent better in occupational therapy and 63 percent better in physical therapy after having a therapy dog visit,” Sydney said.
She determined that with therapy dogs, children became 46 percent stronger and 33 percent smarter. When it was a combination test, they became 54 percent smarter and stronger.
“My hypothesis was right,” Sydney said.
The project did not receive any awards, but her mother said the judges didn’t know the back story.
Her model did, however, impress Sara Wilson, a clinical manager at Our Children’s House who had watched Sydney’s progress. Wilson can take part of that credit — she owns two dogs, Walker, a 10-year-old semi-retired therapy dog, and Auggie, a therapy dog in training. Auggie is a Portuguese water dog, or a “pork and cheese” dog as Sydney calls him.
The dogs associated with Baylor’s Animal Assisted Therapy program began with one Sheltie named Dusty, who became part of Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation. Today, the program enlists more than 90 specially trained therapy dogs that volunteer one to four hours at a time — working with patients of all ages or sometimes just brightening their day.
“What we have seen over the last 10 years is that therapy dogs bring a smile to the kids’ faces,” Wilson said. “Everything is better.”
McMahan said Sydney would not have come so far without the program. Today, Sydney walks, talks and plays with friends and family. The third-grader enjoys studying with her peers in the talented and gifted program.
It is a far cry from the nightmare that began in 2012 when Sydney’s right eye did not seem to align correctly. Then she had vomiting spells.
McMahan recalls vividly when her child said, “Mom, I think I need to see a doctor.”
“When your kids says that, you immediately think urgent care,” the mother of two said.
An MRI offered a terrifying conclusion. A “huge mass” was found on Sydney’s brain stem. Surgery was set up immediately.
Beforehand, Sydney asked her mother a tough question in the hospital room.
“Mom, if something goes wrong, will I still be me? If I’m not smart, what am I?” McMahan recalled of her youngest child, who she described as intelligent and thought-provoking.
Only a quarter of the diseased area could be removed. But Sydney was still Sydney, although the operation affected many of her organs as well as her motor skills. Rehabilitation and other treatment have attacked many of her issues.
Sydney has had three surgeries and maxed out on radiation. The brain stem glioma tumors continue to grow and now cysts are showing up on MRIs.
McMahan says she hopes for a promising outcome.
“Sydney has just a good spirit,” McMahan said. “She has a heart of gold.”