MECHANICSVILLE, Va. (WRIC) — Shirley Johnson has been at Hanover Health and Rehabilitation Center for about three weeks. She hurt herself during a nasty fall but is getting back into shape with therapy and a special friend.
“You giving Miss Johnson a workout, girl. Thank you,” she laughs, patting Nala.
Nala is a therapy cat who has been volunteering at healthcare facilities for nine years. The 18-pound Maine Coon walks down the hallways on a leash, greeting everyone she meets with a meow. She’s a gentle presence during rigorous physical therapy sessions.
“Her most famous stories are helping to people get up and use their walker when they’re telling the therapist no,” her trainer Sonja Lazear says proudly. “She’s done that twice now, helping people to walk.”
Lazear rescued Nala, who is named after The Lion King character, and soon realized the pretty kitty was a social butterfly who was not her best at home.
“Getting into cupboards, drinking out of the toilet, picking things out of the wastebasket,” Lazear describes. “Bored, bored, bored, so I said, ‘Nala, you need a job.'”
She started harness and leash training and was then certified as a therapy cat.
There is always quite a reaction when people see her walking down the hallways on her leash.
“Everybody thinks she’s a dog,” Lazear chuckles. “They say, ‘Nice Shih Tzu,’ and I say, ‘Where?'”
Nala cozies up to everyone she meets and greets them with a meow.
“It just brightened my day when I saw her!” Johnson exclaims.
During this Occupational Therapy session, she is sitting next to Johnson.
“Keep going, stretch those muscles,” Occupational Therapist Lisa Borcheller encourages Johnson to reach for Nala.
Exercises like these can be monotonous but not when there is a sweet and soft reward at the end.
“They’re not looking at their diagnosis, they’re not looking at their deficits or the weaknesses. They’re just there to give love and affection and be present with the person,” explains Borcheller. “I think that goes such a long way.”
Borcheller says Nala helps patients with arthritis stretch out their hands as they pet her. There’s also plenty of research that supports therapy animals like her can improve symptoms of depression and high blood pressure. Patients with Alzheimer’s and Dementia are more likely to socialize when they are in a facility.
Now 13, Nala has been a therapy cat for nine years.
“I couldn’t have done it without you, Darling, you know that?” Johnson squeezes Nala affectionately after her final exercises.
She has touched countless lives with her gift.
“She’s calm, she’s cuddly. She’s very charming,” Johnson smiles.