The University Record, February 20, 1995

Mott gerbil's an award-winner, paws down

By Rebecca A. Doyle

Chip and his roommate Dale are the "best distraction there is when parents have to leave children in the hospital," says Anne M. Mende, activity therapist at Mott Hospital. "When kids are too young to talk and can't communicate, they're hard to calm down."

That's when Chip and Dale are called on to do what they do best--wiggle their whiskers, chew up cardboard tubes or snuggle into a little ball in the palm of a child's hand.

Chip and Dale are gerbils that have lived on the pediatric oncology and cardiology care units of Mott Children's Hospital since 1992. They provide entertainment, distraction and something to love for children who are hospitalized with serious illnesses.

"They're really a big deal in here," Mende says. "They are great as something to watch, even when the kids can't move, and they have really earned their keep."

Their ability to calm and distract children is why, when Chip got sick, Mende called the Unit for Laboratory Animal Medicine (ULAM) right away. "They always take care of the animals for us," she says. "They treat them very well."

Todd Jackson, ULAM veterinarian and research fellow, discovered that Chip had squamous cell carcinoma, a form of cancer that is most often fatal.

"He talked to me as if I were the mother, and assured me that he would do everything he could to help Chip," Mende remembers. "I remember that he said he would do everything he could to bring Chip back for the kids."

Jackson successfully removed the tumor, but didn't hold out much hope for Chip's chances for recovery. Mende says Chip got almost as many get-well cards as some of her patients do.

It has been more than 18 months since Chip's surgery and he still shows no sign of a recurrence. For many children, knowing Chip has faced surgery, as they are, seemed to comfort them, to help them feel less alone, and Chip's success in beating the odds has meant hope for many of them.

Chip's success also inspired Jackson to submit the gerbil's name to the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association for its Companion Animal of the Year Award in 1994. The association added another category--the Therapy Companion Animal of the Year award--and Chip's name was entered there with other animals that provide service and comfort to humans.

Chip won, paws down.

Now, next to Chip's new habitat in the activity room on the 5th floor of Mott Children's Hospital is proudly displayed a plaque bearing his name. Roommate Dale jealously ignores it, but Chip, though he would probably rather have a handful of peanuts, sometimes stands up on his hind legs and peers at it.