Anya Shapiro, a 5-year-old from Riverview, got a pet therapy visit from Romeo, a 6-year-old, long-haired German shepherd, and his handler, Bill Bergsma, also from Riverview. Romeo’s been a pet therapy dog at St. Joseph’s Hospital-South for three years.

St. Joseph’s Hospital-South has added a new member to its pet therapy team. Mercury, an English labrador, is now one of six furry friends providing pet therapy to patients, team members and visitors at the Riverview hospital. Mercury previously provided nursing home pet therapy in Maryland and does so now at a nursing home here in Florida in addition to recently joining St. Joseph’s Hospital-South. Kathy Hofstad is Mercury’s handler.

Mercury joins Romeo, a long-haired German shepherd with handler Bill Bergsma; Rosie, Izzie and Tootsie, all Havanese with handlers Liset and David Higgs; and Louie, a dachshund/shih tzu/schnauzer mix with handler Pam Provenzano, on St. Joseph’s Hospital-South’s pet therapy team.

Original Story Printed May 2022.

St. Joseph’s Hospital-South has a very important volunteer, and he is looking for some friends to join him.

Romeo, a 6-year-old, long-haired German shepherd, volunteers with his owner, Bill Bergsma, every week at the hospital, bringing joy and comfort to patients and staff members alike, and according to the hospital’s volunteer resource manager, Kim Wallace, there are opportunities for more canine philanthropists.

According to Wallace, the program began at the hospital in 2015, and there are currently four dogs who regularly participate.

Bergsma, who moved to Riverview from Michigan three years ago, felt Romeo would be a good pet therapist because of his personality and calm demeanor.

“I knew I needed to find him a job,” he explained, adding that Romeo, who weighs more than 100 pounds, looks forward to coming to the hospital every week. “He is a totally different dog when he puts on his vest. He knows he is going to work.”

Romeo’s duties include greeting patients and staff at the front desk and visiting patients in rooms who have requested pet therapy.

“We often end up in the pediatric wing because so many of the kids love him,” said Bergsma. “If they are scared, they usually stop crying as soon as they see him and can pet him during treatments.”

In order to participate in the program, dogs must have passed one of the four certification programs approved by BayCare. They must also be up to date on all shots and their owners have to provide the necessary paperwork every year.

“The experience is so rewarding for both of us,” said Bergsma.

To learn more about the program and the requirements for volunteering, email Wallace at

For more information on St. Joseph’s Hospital South, visit

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Assignment Editor Kate Quesada started working at the Osprey Observer in 2004 after graduating from the University of South Florida with a masters degree in Mass Communications. Since then, she has held various positions at the paper and has been working as the assignment editor since January 2020. She lives in Lithia with her husband Mike and sons Dylan and Max and stays active in the community on school PTA boards and volunteering with local organizations.