From Teacher to Volunteer

Rita Bigham spent 19 years as an elementary school teacher in Carrboro. Today, with the help of her dog, Pippin, she is lifting the spirits of patients and UNC Hospitals staff as a volunteer in the Pet Therapy Program.

by Hannah Crain -

For patients, spending extended periods of time in the hospital is challenging, emotionally and physically. Days can run together, becoming a blur. UNC Hospitals volunteer Rita Bigham understands this, so she offers every patient she visits a keepsake – a reminder of a positive experience they had in the hospital.

“I always give them a homemade card with a photo of Pippin,” Rita says. “I want them to remember Pippin.”

A former show dog, Pippin is now a regular at UNC Hospitals, becoming family to patients and UNC Hospitals staff who have gotten to know him. Doctors and nurses in the inpatient cancer unit instantly light up when Rita and Pippin arrive.

“I think he gives as much therapy to the doctors and the nurses and the rest of the staff as he does to the patients,” says Rita.

Nurses pick Pippin up and introduce him to staff and patients who haven’t met him. 

Pippin with Nurses
Carolyn Jones (left) and Katie Wintermeier

“Our patients are often hospitalized for extended periods of time, sometimes far away from family and friends,” says Katie Wintermeier, a nurse on the unit. “When Rita brings Pippin to the unit, the whole mood changes. As a nurse, I can see the joy in the patients' faces, and the stress melts away. Pippin is so relaxed and calm, which really brings a sense of peace to the patients.”

Rita and Pippin have been a volunteer pet therapy team at UNC Hospitals for eight years. Rita routinely enters the hospital greeting everyone around her, holding flowers and gifts in one hand and using her other hand to steer the stroller that carries Pippin.

“Rita is so sweet and often brings flowers or sweets for staff,” says Carolyn Jones, a nurse on the unit. “Pippin is so cuddly and sweet that everyone wants to snuggle with him. For patients, he's a nice distraction, especially for those who are here for a long time and might have a dog or two at home that they haven't been able to see. I think it helps them feel a little bit more connected with the 'real' world, and it brings a smile to their face.”
Pippin and Rita2
Rita and Pippin visiting the North Carolina Cancer Hospital.

One patient on the unit has received many visits from Rita and Pippin since her treatment began 18 months ago and become a good friend of Rita and Pippin and of other pet therapy teams.

“The dogs bring a sense of wellness into the room, and I don’t feel as sick when they’re with me, lying on my lap,” she says.

Rita, a 19-year veteran elementary school teacher in Carrboro, began volunteering at N.C Children’s Hospital after she retired, reading stories to pediatric patients. Within a few months of getting Pippin, and after learning more about pet therapy, she found Pippin’s calling.

“He was too tranquil to continue being a show dog,” she says. “With his former owner, he would do one trick and then he would want to lie down to take a nap right after. I looked down at Pippin and said, ‘You know, Pippin, you may not have been a successful show dog, but you are going to be a wonderful therapy dog!’”

Although Pippin has become a fixture around the hospital, most people don’t know that his former name is Spud. Rita laughs when thinking about it. “He may look like a little white potato, but he is too beautiful of a dog to be named Spud.”

To learn more about the Animal Assisted Activities and Therapy Program at UNC Hospitals and our volunteer pet therapy teams, read Carolina Born and BredEveryone's Buddy, A Second Chance and Creature Comforts.