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Lifting Spirits with (Wo)man's Best Friend: Ginny Fineberg

January 18, 2013

Written By Josh Fernandez, Writer and Web Content Coordinator

Since 2009, Ginny Fineberg, 64, has combined her passion for volunteering with her passion for dogs to bring happiness to people diagnosed with cancer. 

Once every week, the embroidery business owner and her 8-year-old English Golden Retriever, Brealey, drive from Cape May Court House, N.J., to Pennsylvania Hospital’s Joan Karnell Cancer Center to visit people undergoing chemotherapy. The patients play and de-stress with Brealey, a therapy dog trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes and schools, as well as those with learning difficulties or trauma.  

“There are stories where people take a dog to a nursing home and someone who hasn’t spoken in years will talk to the dog,” Ginny says. “I think there’s a real, visceral response to a loving animal. For a vast majority of people, a dog like Brealey brings smiles.”

Ginny, who was diagnosed a decade ago with breast cancer that later metastasized, was inspired to have Brealey offer comfort to those with cancer after she experienced kindness while in active treatment.

Inspired by Compassion

On May 22, 2001, Ginny was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, a rare but very aggressive type of breast cancer where the cells block the lymph vessels in the skin of the breast. Her surgeon recommended chemotherapy immediately before surgery.

“On Monday I was fine, and by Thursday I was getting chemo. It was overwhelming for me,” Ginny recalls.

One day during treatment, Ginny began to cry. Stress, anticipation of side effects such as nausea, and pain resulting from a nurse having trouble inserting her intravenous line had finally gotten to Ginny. A nurse tried to help her, but Ginny couldn’t stop sobbing. 

After the nurse walked away, Ginny met a woman who gave her the comfort she needed.

“This woman had about three hairs on her head and was walking with her IV pole,” Ginny says. “She held my hand and said, ‘It’s OK. This is my third time in cancer treatment, and I’m telling you, you’re going to be OK.’”

The woman advised Ginny to talk to her oncologist about anti-anxiety medicine to help her remain calm during treatment. “It made a difference. It was my first inkling that I should give back in some way,” Ginny says.

Certifying Brealey

After Brealey joined Ginny’s family in 2004, Ginny thought about certifying him as a therapy dog to benefit Camp Dreamcatcher, nonprofit year-round program for children infected or affected by HIV/AIDS that holds a week-long camp every summer. Ginny co-chairs the organization and serves as president of the board of directors.

With the help of a veteran therapy dog owner, in August 2009 Ginny, her daughter and Brealey underwent the rigorous training required to certify Brealey as a therapy dog. Brealey’s first gig at Camp Dreamcatcher began a few weeks later.

Raising Spirits of People Affected by Cancer

Ginny and Brealey began visiting patients at the Joan Karnell Cancer Center in December 2009. Ginny recalls two incidents that emphasized the importance of the work she and Brealey do.

In 2010, Ginny and Brealey met a 9-year-old boy whose mother was undergoing chemotherapy. The boy asked Ginny a humorous question as he played with Brealey in the waiting room.

“He said it as only a 9-year-old boy can: ‘Did you ever see that dogs sometimes scoot their hiney on the carpet? Why do they do that?’” Ginny recalls.

All 10 people in the waiting room shifted their eyes toward Ginny. With the mother’s blessing, Ginny quietly answered the boy.  “He said loudly, ‘Oh, my grandmother always wanted to know that, but I don’t think I should tell her!’” Ginny says, adding that the reaction caused everyone in the room to laugh.

A year later, Ginny and Brealey met a teenager who had to postpone college because of a cancer diagnosis and treatment. The teen rarely had visits from peers, mostly because they moved away for school. He tended to take his frustration out on his mom.

One day, Ginny and Brealey walked by the young man after he had fought with his mother, who was almost in tears. 

“He said to her, ‘Just go and take a walk, I’ll be here with Brealey,” Ginny recalls.

While the mother was away, the young man played with Brealey and talked to Ginny about an array of topics, interests and frustrations. 

“We’d talk a lot about dogs and about basketball and hang out. Eventually, I said, ‘I know you have to be mad at somebody, but it shouldn’t be your mom,’” Ginny says.  “I’m not sure he would have listened or talked to me if I hadn’t had Brealey. I would’ve just been another mother.”

Moments like these serve as constant reminders for Ginny that she and her beloved Brealey are helping those in need.

Photo by Laurie Beck Photography

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