Big Heart, Big Dog
CAPT Julie Darling and Facility Therapy Dog Angus
Editor’s note: We recently featured Capt. Julie Darling in our Spring 2022 issue of Life Unleashed magazine, but due to spacing constraints, the magazine featured a shortened version of Julie’s story. Here is the expanded article.
CAPT Julie A. Darling of the United States Navy represents how a woman with intelligence, drive, and purpose can rise in rank, responsibility, and leadership in our nation’s military.
She also represents how a nurse with a big heart and a big dog can help people get better and live better. The people she helps are Navy sailors, Marines, their families, and many military and civilian staff members within her vast sphere of influence. And the dog? That’s Angus.
Angus serves as a facility therapy dog, and he’s on a mission: to deliver smiles and relieve stress in the pressure cooker that is military healthcare. Angus is doing a terrific job. But first, meet Julie. Let’s start with the acronyms.
CAPT Julie Darling, MSN, ACNP-BC, CCNS, CCRN
What comes next may sound like a resume, but roll with it as the weight of these accomplishments sinks in. Julie holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and a master’s in science in nursing (MSN) from Georgetown University. She is currently pursuing her Doctorate of Nursing Practice from Duke University. She’s board-certified as an acute care nurse practitioner (ACNP-BC), certified clinical nurse specialist (CCNS), and certified critical care nurse (CCRN). She’s also been promoted from Navy ensign, through four grades of lieutenant, lieutenant commander, commander, and now captain (CAPT).
As a new graduate, Julie started her nursing career at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. Surrounded by veterans who encouraged her, she walked from the VA to the recruiter’s office and signed up. In the Navy, she’s been stationed twice in San Diego—once on a fleet surgical team deploying to care for sailors and Marines to supplement ships’ medical departments. She’s worked at a former NATO base in Iceland, at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and now serves as the Assistant Director for Career Plans for the Navy Nurse Corps at the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Falls Church, Virginia.
Behind the achievements, you’ll discover a kind and caring human who—along with her teams—has witnessed plenty of trauma. And that’s where Angus comes in.
We Need a Dog
“We need a dog,” Julie recalls thinking at her last hospital, watching her staff cope with the pressures faced by any acute care facility. “WE NEED A DOG.” After seeing the profound difference our facility therapy dogs were making among peers and patients at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Julie knew that a dog could bring near-instant relief. So, at the recommendations of friends Tracy Krauss—fellow Navy officer, nurse, and handler to dogs Patty Mac and Joe (retired)—and Amy O’Connor, handler to Archie (retired) and the former program head for Walter Reed’s facility dog program, Julie reached out to Southeastern Guide Dogs.
Julie and Angus first met in 2018 when Julie served as Department Head for Critical Care at the U.S. Naval Hospital in San Diego, one of the busiest intensive care units (ICUs) in Navy Medicine. With its main ICU, neonatal ICU, and pediatric ICU, staff members were facing a steady stream of human suffering.
Angus Does His Thing
Before Angus arrived, some were skeptical. “When I presented the idea to the leadership chain of command, there was some eye rolling in the room—I know people thought I was crazy,” Julie admits. But Angus didn’t disappoint. This pupper prefers people over anything, and when he enters a room with his warm, inviting eyes and a tail that rarely stops, he often senses who’s having a hard time.
“There is a high staff burnout and caregiver fatigue associate with critical care nursing,” Julie explains. “But I noticed after the staff had interacted with our dogs, the mood among them did a 180-degree shift for the better.”
When staff faced hard conversations with families and patients, Angus was on call. “He’s really good at noticing when people are sad,” Julie says. “Everyone is so much happier when they have a visit from Angus.”
Good Study Habits
As Angus spread his special brand of cheer throughout the hospital, the clinician in Julie determined to document the impact. She conducted a not-yet-published study about the effects of animal assisted therapy (AAT) on military healthcare providers.
It’s an academic study, peppered with words like “abstract,” “qualitative,” and “methods,” but here’s the gist. Over 120 staff members were asked to respond to this prompt:
Describe briefly (a few words or a sentence) how you are feeling emotionally and/or physically at this moment.
Next, participants met with Angus. After some old-fashioned, endorphin-surging puppy love, they were asked to respond to the prompt again. Here are a few excerpts.
|Initial mood:||After session with therapy dogs:|
|I am feeling very stressed, overwhelmed, anxious||Much more calm than I was when I came in|
|Emotionally—very sad, just dropped my husband off at the ship for deployment this morning. Physically—tired and sore||I feel much more joyful after Angus and LC cuddled me. They are so loving.|
|Tired, stressed, emotionally drained||I feel refreshed, fun, and ready to take on the floor again|
“I’m getting chills, just thinking about it,” says Julie about the results. “The way they talked about how it changed the day, with just 10 minutes of interaction. Sometimes—especially with COVID now—caregivers are tired. They’re not just physically tired; they’re emotionally tired, and they’re exhausted. I feel really strongly that these dogs are a huge resource in the hospital—in any workspace—for the staff.”
Angus made such an impression that when Julie received her next assignment, people said, “Well, you can’t take Angus with you!” “These are the same people that were like, ‘Crazy dog lady, she just wants to bring a dog to work,’” Julies says, “but that wasn’t the case at all.”
Teams stick together, so Angus would be moving to northern Virginia, too. To help with the transition, Julie and her “partner in crime,” Lisa Arnold, coordinated with Southeastern Guide Dogs for another facility therapy dog to replace Angus. A retired Navy nurse practitioner, Lisa serves as the special assistant for the Healthcare Resolutions Program at the Naval Medical Center. Today, Lisa works with a spirited, cheerful yellow Lab named LC, who happens to be Angus’s sister. LC supports Lisa’s work with a specialized team that helps facilitate a safe space for hospital staff to talk after traumatic events.
Julie and Angus transitioned to the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in Falls Church. Angus still does what Angus does best—spread joy. He visits Julie’s colleagues in the Nurse Corps, Medical Corps, Dental Corps, Hospital Corps, and others, and he also serves as an ambassador through Julie’s outreach.
Leadership & Puppy Love
In her new role as Assistant Director for Nurse Corps Career Plans, Julie still helps people, but in a more top-level, build-the-future way. “We’re always looking at our people as, ‘You’re a leader—in addition to being a nurse.’ So how can I help? What can I do? What programs can I support and bolster to create that leadership realm in nursing?”
As Julie does her utmost to help develop and improve the Navy healthcare system and its nurses, one of her best ideas never leaves her side: Angus. And Angus’s best idea? Just being himself. “Angus is an old soul, but he’s got a very goofy personality,” Julie says. “It’s fun to watch the staff enjoying him. He just loves people more than anything. My life—and many others’ lives—are truly better because of Southeastern Guide Dogs and Angus.”