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Meet Gayle Igarashi, 2007 Administrative Professionals Innovation Award Winner

By: Shari Lifland
Last updated 3/23/2011

When we say we search the world over for examples of innovation, we mean it! We found this year’s winner of AMA’s Innovation Award for Administrative Professionals in paradise—Honolulu, Hawaii. Animal lover Gayle Igarashi, an administrative secretary at Maluhia Hospital, was distressed by the lack of activities for nursing home residents. Through her reading and course work on the animal-human bond, she learned that animals can have a therapeutic affect on aged or ill people. An innovation was born: Igarashi founded the “Tails of Aloha” animal therapy program in March, 2000.

In her Innovation Award application Igarashi wrote, “Delta Society has published several studies and the American Medical Association cites direct positive outcomes with patients with high blood pressure, as well as patients who have had recent heart surgery and those with dementia. The patients would connect with the animals on a level that could be documented and allowed for lower blood pressure, less stress on the heart muscle, and lucid moments for dementia patients."

She had to overcome a great deal of resistance—from management, nursing staff, and the State Medicare/Medicaid office—in order to implement her innovation. Rather than taking “no” for an answer, she got to work researching the national regulations relating to therapy pets. She also became certified as an animal assisted therapist, spending $8,000 of her own money on coursework. She still takes courses to learn even more about all aspects of pet care, obedience training, therapy, and first aid.

Now, says Igarashi, she has become a “walking/talking” handbook on therapy animals. Other nursing home facilities call her to give talks and to help them establish their own therapeutic programs. “The best part of the program,” says Gayle, “is that it does not cost anyone a cent. The pet teams are all volunteers. The equipment is purchased and owned by each volunteer, with a collar and leash costing approximately $20.”

For her work as an animal assisted therapist, she has received the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Award, awards from the President’s Freedom Council on Volunteerism, and a $10,000 award from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation in recognition of her founding the “Tails of Aloha” program.

Although her beloved Labrador Retriever Harley, who was a therapy dog for 16 years, has passed away, her new Labrador, Phiglio, has taken up where Harley left off. Phiglio goes to work with her and visits residents during her breaks and lunch period.

Gayle Igarashi's innovation is truly one that keeps on giving. In her words, “This program has changed each volunteer’s life as well as the lives of the residents. Each pet team visit brings so much love to everyone involved. Staff and management have noticed the changes in the residents. The smiles given to the pet teams are smiles that family members have not seen in years. Volunteering is something that families and corporations have forgotten, and as citizens, we all need to begin to work towards a better society through volunteerism.”

About AMA’s Innovation Award for Administrative Professionals
AMA’s Innovation Award celebrates outstanding examples of creative problem solving and innovation in administrative support. The primary purpose of the award, now in its ninth year, is to serve as an inspiration to administrative professionals as they advance in their professional development and seek new knowledge and skills. AMA presented the Award at the 2007 Administrative Professionals Conference, September 30 through October 3 in Las Vegas.

To be eligible for the award, the innovation must have been developed and implemented by administrative professionals and must provide tangible, sustainable, and replicable examples of excellence that can assist others facing similar work and productivity issues. The innovation also must have been implemented for at least six months prior to the application deadline.

It’s not too early to think about the 2008 AMA Innovation Award. For information, send an e-mail to innovation@amanet.org.

About the Author(s)

Shari Lifland is Editorial Communications Manager for American Management Association.  She is editor of the eNewsletters "Moving Ahead," "Management Update," and "Administrative Excellence," and manages content for the Members-only section of AMA's Website.