Md. firefighters bring special visitors to nursing homes

Frederick County firefighters collaborated with a local farm to cheer up nursing home residents during the pandemic

Jeremy Arias
The Frederick News-Post, Md.

FREDERICK COUNTY, Md. — When Fire Medic Derek Hartman isn't busy responding to emergency calls, he and his girlfriend, Bobi Jo Swartz, get to work cheering up nursing home residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

After hearing about farms bringing horses and other animals to walk around nursing homes and visit with residents and patients at their windows, Hartman and Swartz, who is also a firefighter/EMT, decided to put some of the rodeo horses from Swartz's farm in West Virginia to a similar use, visiting several facilities in the Charles Town area on Sunday, the couple said.

Then, with a little help from the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 3666 — the union Hartman belongs to representing Frederick County career firefighters — the couple brought the uplifting act to Frederick on Wednesday.

"It was a great time for us and the people really enjoyed it, so I thought, you know what, we'll just go to Frederick because the fire department has a lot of interaction with these people and with no visitors and no family being allowed to visit in person, this is something simple that we can do that they'll talk about for weeks," Hartman said outside the Genesis Healthcare facility on Ballenger Center Drive Wednesday afternoon.

A team of four IAFF Local 3666 volunteers and five horse handlers took turns leading four horses, Munson, Tickle, Cooper and Spike, around first the Genesis facility, followed by the Frederick Health and Rehabilitation Center and then the Somerford House, stopping the horses at each window to allow the residents inside to get a good look, ask questions if they were able to open the window a crack, and just enjoy the horses.

While the horses are all well-trained and used to excitement and loud noises from competing in rodeo events, the handlers also came equipped with treats to lure the animals' heads into view in case any decided to start munching on the grass rather than focusing on the patients.

"It's already bad enough that they're not in their homes, but now they're stuck here, just with the nurses. And while they appreciate those nurses, to have something exciting happen like this, I mean, how often do you hear, 'I saw a horse outside of my nursing home,'" Swartz said. "... A lot of them, they reach for the glass because they love it. We just had a guy come up in his wheelchair, a lot of them were tapping on the glass, getting the horse's attention."

Stephen Jones, the president of IAFF Local 3666, issued a statement Wednesday praising Hartman and Swartz's initiative, as well as the union members who took the time to come out and help, writing that kind acts like this "is what is going to get us through this challenging time."

The activity was also therapeutic for the firefighters who either volunteered to walk the horses or who showed up in engines to stop by while waiting for the next call to come in.

"It's good to see everyone smiling and laughing and waving, to see the joy in their faces, because it's something we don't get to see on a regular basis," Fire Medic Cameron Pressman said. "Usually we're not there when it's joyful, but here they're smilin' and wavin' and some of them are even FaceTiming."

For Stacey Brookhart and Mike Roles, the activities director and administrator, respectively, at the Frederick Health and Rehabilitation Center, the visit was a welcome activity to bring their residents and patients, many of whom are anxious and just learning to use FaceTime technology to see family members and loved ones.

"We're keeping their spirits up, but they were so excited when we told them yesterday that [the horses] were coming," Brookhart said. "... Because they love animals, we actually have a lab that lives in our facility, he's 8 and he's been here for seven years, so we do visits with him and they're used to him being here, but yeah, they really enjoy music, babies, animals and food."

While many patients got out of bed to get a better look, some had to remain in bed and settled for a wave. All of the residents wore wide, happy smiles as the parade of horses loped by.

One man, who is deaf, stayed in bed, but had his eyes glued to his window as a firefighter led a horse up to visit. His eyes darting back and forth between the horse and a nurse who was translating in American Sign Language from outside his window, allowing him to ask questions.

"He said, 'Oh, I like the horses!'" the nurse told the firefighter, who then started laughing as the man pointed at the firefighter and continued signing with a grin. "He thinks you're my husband, he just asked if you're my husband. I told him, 'No, the horse is my husband!'"


©2020 The Frederick News-Post (Frederick, Md.)


This pandemic is tough for everyone. It is especially tough on our older populations, especially those in nursing homes....

Posted by Career Firefighters Association of Frederick County, MD Local 3666 on Wednesday, April 22, 2020


McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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