Aggie Hero: Jenny Belke

Jenny Belke sits in a medical office with Huggie, a black Labrador.
Huggie, a 3-year-old Labrador, spends every day with Jenny Belke at the Comprehensive Cancer Center, and goes home with her when the day is done. (UC Davis Health)

When a 4-year-old boy coming to the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center for another session of treatment had a meltdown and refused to come inside, Jenny Belke knew just what to do. She sat Huggie, a 3-year-old black Labrador, in front of a window where the boy could see him and ran outside.

“Have you seen Huggie? I can’t find him!” she recalled telling the boy, who calmed down to help look for the beloved facility dog, quickly spotting him through the window. When another staffer lured the dog away from the window, the boy followed.

Belke is a certified child-life specialist, working in the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Pediatric Infusion Center to not only distract children from painful, scary or tedious treatments, but to use play as a way to explain complicated medical procedures.

“I help patients cope with any sort of medical visit,” she said. “I try to make it less scary so when something does happen in the future, they’re not scared to come back.”

A word about the heroic Huggie: He came from Canine Companions for Independence, which provides dogs free of charge. Huggie was trained for two years and knows more than 40 commands.

Belke’s go-to tricks include pulling out a bag filled with distracting toys that some kids ask for as soon as they walk in the door, or “goofy” behavior like starting conversations with animals painted on the walls. But she said the answer isn’t always to distract — she uses dolls and even bowls of candy to explain medical procedures and diseases.

“Knowing the process takes away the fear of the unknown,” she said.

And not every child has the energy for rambunctious play. On a recent morning, Belke pulled a rolling dog bed alongside a child who was receiving treatment and invited Huggie to jump up and snuggle with the boy.

Huggie, who features prominently in drawings displayed at the center showing kids’ favorite parts of coming to treatment, follows Belke throughout the day and then goes home with her at night.

Belke also coordinates donations, volunteers and interns, and special events like the annual holiday party that drew hundreds to the Cancer Center last weekend for free desserts, bounce houses, video games, and visits with Santa, police officers, firefighters, superheroes and Star Wars characters.

Belke understands firsthand the need for staff who focus on reassuring children. At 17, she was hospitalized for gall bladder and liver problems, and when her sister came to visit, she was so scared of the sight of Belke connected to medical equipment “she just stood in the doorway and cried.”

Belke acknowledges her job isn’t always easy — some of the interactions she has with families include preparing them for the death of a sibling or helping them mourn — but she tries to find joy wherever she can.

“Some days are sad and some days are hard, but my job is to try to make them happy — even if it’s just for a second,” she said. “If I can make it easier for them to come, then my job is done.”