Unlikely Healer Walks on Three Paws

Half a decade ago, in a little mountain town about 60 miles northeast of San Diego, a feral kitten dragged his front left leg uselessly.  The dog-loving owners of the property in Julian where he sought refuge rushed him to the local veterinarian, who informed them that if his leg was amputated, he could live as an indoor cat.  Gazing at Cathy Conheim, a psychotherapist raised to hate cats because they ate birds, and Donna Brooks, a retired physician and sculptor who had never had a cat, but always reached out to heal anyone who was hurting, the kitten eyed them hopefully.  Would they help?

Two years later and several continents away, Nancy was grieving the death of her son.  Once gregarious and outgoing, she withdrew from her family and friends, from everyone except her pet cats.  What she had lost became far more important than what she still possessed, and, it seemed to her, only her cats still needed her attention and affection.

The little three-legged cat and Nancy connected, despite the oceans and differences between them, in an unlikely turn of events. Like most grand adventures, this one began with a choice. Cathy and Donna, the staunchly dog-only people, decided to bring the kitten home with them to help him heal after the successful amputation of his leg. Henry jm – the jm stands for Just Me – struggled for weeks to teach his new owners that he was not a dog and did not wish to be treated like one. Although three-legged, the feisty feline was hardly handicapped. Rather, he was a handy cat, one who could escape from all cages; one who could rouse his humans from a deep sleep as he played with anything and everything they dared to leave on the kitchen counter; one who could even, despite all odds, teach dog-only hearts to open up and love the newest member of their family.

Patiently wiggling his way into the hearts of his owners was just the first step in an extraordinary journey for Henry. Cathy sent an email to 20 friends describing Henry’s escapades as a newly minted indoor cat.  Soon people from South Africa to Japan heard about what was happening, and wrote to share their stories, their challenges, and their curiosity about what Henry was learning.  Cathy discovered that speaking through Henry, in his voice, gave her a freedom of expression she did not have in her standard therapeutic role, and Henry’s voice became the easiest way to reach and teach humans.

Through daily letters and emails, Henry has served as a healer for Nancy, providing a bridge back to society, back to living and engaging with her family and friends.  Over the past six years, Henry has received almost 50,000 letters from humans and critters. Some  are hurting and struggling to find meaning in their lives, others seeking loving friendship .  He was named the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Cat of the Year for 2010, and he has authored two critically acclaimed books.  The books, which tell his story of perseverance and triumph, have helped tens of thousands including  the families of injured veterans learning  to cope with their new realities. The books  teach  children tolerance and resilience.They have been translated into Spanish and one into Creole.  Ever tech-savvy and always looking for new ways to reach those in need, Henry recently pioneered the development of the world’s first emotional bandage, an Apple iPad app entitled, “Ouch! Emotional bandage,” which conveys some of his lessons.

Henry’s lessons are very simple:

  • Hate is learned.
  • You are not defined by what happens to you.
  • Play the paw you are dealt.
  • Just because you can’t do everything doesn’t give you permission to do nothing.
  • Be the best You that you can be.
  • Play to your strengths.
  • Accept mistakes as learning opportunities.
  • Connect with what and whom you care about.

These lessons are guidelines for living a healthy tolerant and fulfilled  life and are the underpinnings of   “Henry’s World,” and “What’s the Matter with Henry?” Both of these books are  accompanied by unique “Kibble for Thought, Homework for Humans” workbooks, which were written for people of all ages, and all different kinds of adventures, in mind. The healing messages and challenges are for humans, the profits, above printing costs, go to help animals. Any animal group in the world can use these materials as fundraising tools.

Henry’s sister, Dolly, a poodle living the perfect dog life, was minding her business as the sole pet of the family in Cathy and Donna’s house when the pair decided to rescue the cat. Not consulted about adopting the kitten, nor part of the hours and hours each day spent answering the letters to Henry, the dog initially felt left out and dejected.  However, after seeing the positive impact Henry had on people’s lives, Dolly decided she wanted to become involved in healing, as well. Dolly told her story in the book “What About Me? I’m Here too!”  and her “Kibble for Thought” workbook, in an attempt to give humans an emotional vocabulary to support health. It speaks to all of us who feel invisible at times.  Dolly is everyone: looking good on the outside but hiding her confusing feelings on the inside.   Her book validates difficult and conflicting feelings and gives a wider vocabulary to express those feelings, even when love must be shared.

Why have the voices of Henry and Dolly connected so powerfully with followers from hugely varied backgrounds around the world?  Animals are our safe havens, an unending source of unconditional love and acceptance.  The National Institutes of Health acknowledges and researches the healing powers that animals exert on humans.  No matter whether the animals are real, stuffed, or virtual, they become trusted confidants and helpers no regardless of the challenges their humans are facing.

“People speak to animals differently and more openly,” says Conheim. “They tell pets their secrets; they speak in a different tone to them.”

Whether the person is an injured Marine, a child who is different from others, a lonely challenged senior citizen, a curious child, an animal loving human,  Henry and Dolly provide listening, loving, caring examples of connection to others.  The pair, along with Henry’s two-legged Dachshund girlfriend Tink, teach humans by example to be curious, to learn the skills of resilience, and to focus on what they have, not on what they lack. They help people express their emotions, and, in the process, reveal their true selves to those around them.

The Just Me Project, the educational and healing arm of Henry’s World, provides education and healing to people of all ages and backgrounds. Adaptable and engaging, the project has been used in schools, on military bases, and in a number of hospitals and clinics.  One group teaches tolerance and anti-bullying through Henry’s story.  Another school utilizes it to evoke creativity from children who come from deeply disadvantaged backgrounds.

In Henry’s hometown, Julian Elementary School was 1 of only thirteen in the nation to win a 2010 National School of Character award for promoting character education.  Teachers and students discuss concepts like mental health and synergy along with their academic subjects.  The school promotes service days and peer groups where children can learn empathy and where they are encouraged to educate each other on things like yoga and going green.  The school garden teaches everything from biology to responsibility, and creates the ideal opportunity for all members of the school to work together in tending the herbs and vegetables.

The results of character education at Julian Elementary have been dramatic.  Detentions, particularly for bullying, have dropped significantly.  Disadvantaged students and learning disabled students have made huge gains across a variety of academic subjects.  Even attendance has increased.  The initial implementation of Henry’s program has had such a substantial impact that it has been named the subject of the first in-service training of 2011.

Almost 50,000 copies of “What’s the Matter with Henry?”, “Henry’s World”, and “What About Me, I’m Here Too!” are in circulation. Over 6,000 books and workbooks have been distributed to families with sick children, military families, and children displaced by Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti.

Like the Just Me Project, Henry’s girlfriend Tink has defied expectations.  Born with only two legs as a result of irresponsible breeding, Tink’s spirit is irrepressible as she races about on a custom set of wheels.  Successfully executed after eleven iterations by orthotist Adrian Ravitz, the wheels fit Tink perfectly. Adrian spent months working to make the wheels just right, illustrating Henry’s point that mistakes are learning opportunities.  Tink sometimes accompanies Conheim on trips and speaking engagements.  She has served as a tangible example of how a positive attitude and curiosity can result in success, against all the odds.  School children in Sacramento and conference attendees in San Diego who met the dog quickly got the message, and the excitement, that no one needs to be defined by their circumstances when Tink raced toward them.

Our nation struggles with a medical system focused on disease, not on health, and on procedures, not on caring.  Henry, Dolly and Tink, along with their dedicated humans, show us that if we focus on love and acceptance, we can help each other and ourselves in ways we cannot predict and in ways which unite us all in healing our hearts.

For more information: www.henrysworld.org