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Obituary: Regina Abel, occupational therapy instructor, 70

Expert in animal-assisted therapy focused on role of animals in rehabilitation, education

by Diane Duke WilliamsJune 24, 2021

Regina Abel, PhD, an instructor in occupational therapy and in medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, died June 15, 2021, in St. Louis, following a heart attack. She was 70.

Abel was fascinated by the interaction between animals and humans and how it facilitated rehabilitation and education. She often was seen on the Medical Campus with Dolly and Wally, therapy dogs she trained, on her way to sessions in which students learned how to help pediatric patients maximize their recovery.

Her research focused on how therapy dogs could benefit children during recovery and the impact of dog training programs in prisons. She also was interested in how animal-human interaction could help children with chronic conditions.

Beginning in 2007, she worked in the Child and Health Education Laboratory led by Allison King, MD, PhD, a professor of occupational therapy, of medicine and of pediatrics. Abel’s research in the lab focused on ways to best help children with sickle cell disease and with brain tumors to participate and learn in school. Previously, Abel completed a postdoctoral fellowship and worked as a staff scientist in the developmental neuropsychology lab of C. Robert Almli, PhD, now-retired associate professor of occupational therapy.

Regina Abel with Dolly, one of the therapy dogs she trained. She often took Dolly to sessions on the Medical Campus in which students learned how to help pediatric patients maximize their recovery.

“Regina was the kindest soul around and had a love of animals, especially dogs,” said Lisa Tabor Connor, PhD, associate dean and director of the Program in Occupational Therapy. “She was instrumental in developing a program of animal-assisted therapy and mentored many of our students in projects on this topic. We will miss her immensely, both as a person who was beloved by all and as a valuable member of our OT team.”

Abel, who grew up on a farm in Bolivar, Missouri, earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Missouri State University in 1992. She earned her doctorate in 2000 in developmental psychology at Indiana University, Bloomington, where she studied development in babies before and soon after birth.

She joined the Program in Occupational Therapy at Washington University in 1999 as a postdoctoral fellow. She went on to become an adjunct instructor, staff scientist and research patient coordinator before joining the faculty as an instructor in 2017.

Abel spent much of her free time taking her therapy dogs to visit patients in area hospitals and volunteering in a network that rescues dogs from shelters with high euthanasia rates and drives them to new homes. Her other passions included baseball, antique cars and her family.

She is survived by two sons, Travis Abel and Bryan Hobbs; her sister, Trudy Stewart; and 12 grandchildren. Her daughter, Sheila King, preceded her in death in 2016.

The Program in Occupational Therapy will hold a memorial service at a later date in coordination with Abel’s family. More details will be shared as they become available.

Memorial contributions may be made to Occupational Therapy Scholarships in memory of Dr. Regina Abel online, or by mail to Washington University, c/o Becky Pitzer; MSC 1082-144-2555; 1 Brookings Drive; St. Louis, MO 63130.