Alumni Spotlight: Whitney Romine

What year did you graduate from the College of Public Health - and what is your degree?

I graduated in 2021 with a Master of Public Health, with a Social and Behavioral Sciences concentration.

In a nutshell, what do you do?

I work as an animal therapy activity coordinator with the Mayo Clinic. My role is responsible for oversight of the Caring Canines and Facility-Based Service Dog programs at the Rochester, Minnesota campus. Caring Canines is a program where registered or certified volunteer therapy animal handlers bring their animal partners to visit hospital patients. The Facility-Based Service Dog (FBSD) program is a partnership with Canine Companions (formerly Canine Companions for Independence) where professional staff are paired with a highly trained dog to supplement their role. I will also be supporting animal-assisted interventions research and any other human-animal interaction related programming. 

I really see this role as looking at the bigger tapestry of human-animal relationships for Mayo Clinic patients and staff, identifying challenges and opportunities, and making recommendations to promote the health and welfare of humans, animals, and the environment we all share. In this way, I adopt a ”One Health” public health approach to my role.

What are you working on right now?

I started in November, so I am working on getting up to speed on Mayo Clinic policies and  procedures in relation to my role primarily. I have started shadowing Caring Canines teams during their visits with patients to learn the dynamics of each animal-handler team and the characteristics of each floor. I have always believed it important to match patient care unit dynamics (i.e., general medical/surgery or critical/intensive care? High or low staff involvement?) with the preferences of both the dog and their human to minimize stress and maximize therapeutic value of each visit

Outside of my responsibilities at the Mayo Clinic, I have been invited to serve on the Certification Commission for the Association of Animal-Assisted Interventions Professionals (AAAIP). This certification is a new initiative with the purpose of professionalizing the field of animal-assisted interventions and recognizing the specialized skill set required to involve animals into therapeutic interventions/treatments.

Why did you choose this path?

In the beginning, I didn’t choose my path so much as I kept stumbling upon things by accident and then sticking around to try them out. Over time, I started to notice that I was the best version of myself whenever I was working on anything related to animal-assisted interventions. One experience I’ll never forget was a class project where we had to talk about different counseling modalities so I chose animal-assisted therapy and I brought my therapy dog partner, Roxie, to class with me to supplement my presentation. My professor pulled me aside after class and said if I wanted to succeed in counseling, I needed to be the person I was when my dog was present even when my dog wasn’t present. What I also heard was “this is no place for dogs.” Both messages said to me that I did not belong there. (Fast forward to today where animal-assisted counseling is now an established field with published standards and criteria).

I spent the years after scouring for information about jobs that involve working with animals and education related to those fields. I ruled out most of the traditional jobs people think of like veterinarian, dog trainer or animal shelter worker. I realized I kept coming back to the role I was already in, volunteer coordinator, because I loved working with volunteers, the variety of responsibilities, and because much of the work aligns with my values regarding human-animal relationships, promoting safety and wellness, choice, consent, and agency. I consistently wished that I could just specialize in animal-assisted interventions without coordinating a bunch of other non-animal programs, so I chose this path to honor that wish.

Why do you love what you do?

I don’t think I truly understood why I love what I do until I recently reflected on a volunteer experience where I co-taught a workshop for animal-assisted crisis response canine handlers. I adapted a game into a brief activity where handlers partnered up and took turns teaching each other a simple task. At the end, we reflected on our feelings during the activity and how what we learned might apply to bringing our dogs into a crisis situation. What I loved most was everyone’s excitement and energy about the learning and perspective taking. People strengthened their relationships with each other and with their dogs. It reminded me of every handler I’d ever mentored that came back with tears in their eyes to tell me a story of a patient’s life they’d touched. This ties back to my fascination with ideas of safety vs threat, relationship and connection and how the human-animal bond fits in. Empowering people and animals to work together in a mutually beneficial way and seeing their intrinsic joy when they connect is why I love what I do.

How did your KSU College of Public Health education prepare you for your current work in public health?

My KSU CPH education really helped me begin to see and apply public health principles to my roles to discover new and innovative ways to grow them. Rather than simply focusing on recruiting and deploying therapy animal handler teams, my education helped me take a step back to look at animal-assisted intervention programs as a whole to evaluate their outcomes, impact, and relationship to the structures of healthcare. It also helped me to start to question previous assumptions about human-animal relationships and look for new ways to support not just therapy animal handler teams, but pet-owning families as well. I find myself asking myself every day how I can leverage my role to make the world a healthier place for humans, animals and the environment? How can I define, measure, and disseminate that?

What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of your work?

The most rewarding aspect of my work is when I enjoy the privilege of seeing therapy animal handlers and their dogs interacting with patients, staff or visitors and everyone is having a good time. Healthcare is a tough environment for anyone to get comfortable in, let alone a dog, whose olfactory capabilities humans barely understand. They see and smell the world in a completely different way. I take pride when I see a dog’s eyes light up and they willingly approach new people and their favorite people.

The most challenging aspect of my work is continuing to be an advocate for the animal’s needs in a rigid setting while also supporting patient care innovations. Clinicians are seeing the value in human-animal relationships and enthusiastically embracing opportunities to involve animals in treatment whenever possible. Hospitals generally have access to a wealth of information regarding human biological and psychological needs, but very little on how to help dogs integrate and thrive in human-centric settings. I spend every day learning how to better understand animal’s needs and how to create more inclusive environments for them.

Was there a seminal moment for you at the KSU College of Public Health?

I had two seminal moments at the KSU CPH. The first was when one of my professors, Dr. Mary Step, emailed me and then later called me to encourage me to consider continuing on to a Ph.D. program. I am an only child. My parents did not pursue education beyond undergrad, focusing on retail and business in their careers. The two aunts I was close to were both primary school teachers. My going into healthcare and volunteer management alone was a huge leap, but I never saw myself in academia. After my experience in the counseling school feeling like I didn’t belong, her reaching out felt like someone inviting me back in.

My second was the MPH Applied Practicum Experience (APE). The semester I enrolled in the APE, March 2020, was the very time that the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States. Many of the sites that were traditionally open to students were now all closed. I went to one of the virtual CPH open houses with the dean and shared my struggle, and she connected me with one of the faculty who helped me come up with the concept for my practicum project. My practicum course instructor connected me with CPH professor of  social and behavioral sciences and associate dean for Research, Practice, and Global Affairs, Jeffery Hallam, Ph.D. Dr. Hallam knew my background and interest in human-animal relationships, and tried to connect me with an Emergency Department physician at a local hospital for a literature review project relating to human-animal interaction in the context of emergency medicine, but the pandemic swamped the hospitals. We turned that project into an independent study later on, and focused instead on my Virtual Doggie Brigade for the practicum. If it hadn’t been for the APE, I would have just taken an iPad tablet to patients to do video calls with therapy dog teams and nothing else. The practicum experience taught me how to use all my coursework to turn that experience into a product. I wrote down everything I did in the form of a journal, a report, and a manual. I turned all that content into a grant proposal that earned $10,000 to expand the program from PetSmart Charities. 

What advice would you give to current public health students?

Public health is more than weight loss, disease prevention, smoking cessation, and other common buzz words we hear. The social determinants of health and upstream/downstream determinants creates a framework that really opens up the field in new and exciting ways that make niches worth exploring. Don’t be afraid to bring your authentic self into this field. Your voice can spotlight and help elevate voices like yours who haven’t been heard by previous generations of public health. “No one is safe until everyone is safe’” has been utilized as a pro-vaccine slogan, but I think current events have shown us that its application extends so much deeper to people who have been systematically oppressed and marginalized. Public health desperately needs diversity.

Read Whitney Romine’s newest research, “From In-Person to Virtual: A Case Study of an Animal-Assisted Visiting Program in a Pediatric Setting”

POSTED: Friday, February 10, 2023 01:05 PM
Updated: Friday, February 10, 2023 02:04 PM