Healing Paws
by Theodora Malison; Photography by Jody Robinson

“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language,” were the notable words of philosopher Martin Bueber, and in the case of patients at Xenia Hospice, truer words have never been spoken.

Meet Henry—Xenia Hospice’s therapy cat, exuding his therapeutic powers and comfort on one patient at a time. Xenia Hospice has been providing patients facing life-limiting illnesses holistic and compassionate care, offering services from medical management, personalized care and support. Among the hospice’s holistic approaches includes the usage of pet therapy, or in other words, where Henry comes into play.

“Xenia and the staff are exceptionally caring and go above and beyond to meet both the patient’s and family’s needs,” says hospice nurse Chrissy Lamina. “I don’t think a lot of people truly understand exactly what hospice is. It’s interdisciplinary – medical, behavioral, emotional, and spiritual. It meets you where you are at. It helps when you need it the most. And people that elect hospice earlier tend to benefit more from the service. When you choose lifeenhancing care at the end of life that supports your health goals, you have access to different programs and services. And that’s where Henry comes into play.”

Suburban Life/Philadelphia Life spoke with Lamina and Executive Director Rich Kedanis to learn more about the hospice’s furry friend, his prevalence from a rough beginning and the scientific wonders behind the touch of an animal.

I’d say it’s more common to hear about therapy dogs over therapy cats. That said, why a therapy cat?
Rich Kedanis: There’s sort of an immediate advantage to having a therapy cat over a therapy dog. With a cat—even if it’s in a facility with locked dementia units—you can take them in a pet porter. Cats are lighter in weight, generally bear confinement well, are somewhat quiet and calm, have less accidents and purr like a tuning fork. Though Henry tends to be a bit heavy sometimes (laughs), we can still take him out of the pet porter in a cinch.

How did this idea for a therapy cat in Xenia Hospice come about?
RK:We read a book about a cat named Oscar, who was a resident cat in a nursing home in Providence R.I., and one of the things this cat did was jump up and lie down with terminally ill patients and comforted them until their passing. The cat could sense when a person was dying. We figured we could possibly adapt that concept of using cats as companions into cat therapy visits for hospice patients and families, so we began looking for around and every cat we came in contact with didn’t really want to sit on a lap or be present with a patient in such a way. We were searching for a cat that had a good disposition—you can’t really train a cat—and we wanted one that would do well in the office. At one point, I had almost given up the search, because it was frustrating not being able to find what we were looking for. Fast forward, one day when I had a two-hour gap after an appointment cancellation, I took a visit to the Providence Animal Center—one of the country’s most successful no-kill shelters— and there I was introduced to Henry.

I suppose the larger question is how did you specifically choose Henry?
RK: It was almost as if Henry was born to do this. The cattery manager for Providence Animal Center found Henry in an SPCA in Vineland, N.J. and when she found him, he had a huge gash in his cheek, a deformed ear and was overall pretty ill. In fact, she took him off of death row—he was going to die that day by euthanasia in December of 2015. The Providence Animal Center gave him a head to toe assessment, some TLC and got him on the road to recovery in many ways. And as the staff went to pet and care for him, he was very responsive and vocal, and he was almost sort of hugging them. He really opened up and loved the attention. So when we evaluated Henry, we realized he was exactly what we were looking for. The center loved him so much, they didn’t want to relinquish him because they loved him so much, but they knew he deserved a forever home and an opportunity to put his talents to good use in the community. Henry frequently visits his friends at the Providence Animal Center.

Did Henry have to undergo any particular training or certifications similar to therapy and service dogs?
Chrissy Lamina: No—sort of as [Rich] Kedanis mentioned, it was just Henry’s natural personality. He’s really laid back and calm. It’s rare to find cats like him.

How have patients continued to respond to Henry today? Is he as successful today as he was then?
RK: Many of our patients have advanced dementia, or have any of a variety of diagnoses from congestive heart failure to advanced cancers, and Henry is a special source of comfort for them. Patients with advanced dementia, for instance, may have stopped seeing with their eyes or engaging in traditional back-and-forth communication, but are sometimes still tactile with their hands and touch-oriented. These patients are perfect for Henry because it’s sort of a win-win for both—he gets a Swedish massage (laughs) and the patient gets the therapy that only a living and breathing purr machine can deliver.
CL: The patients love him, and Henry really calms them down. With one patient, though she doesn’t speak much at all, we’re seeing noticeable improvement in her speech through these visits with Henry. Henry is great for distracting patients from their pain.

It appears there are actual health benefits to Henry’s presence and through pet therapy, correct?
RK: There are absolutely a number of benefits, and some we’ve actually measured. The patient’s pulse ox goes up, so they’re receiving more oxygen into their blood; blood pressure decreases and we see what appears to be a lessening of physical and emotional pain. Pet therapy also stimulates the growth of red blood cells and white blood cells, if needed within the body. It’s a very powerful thing to use with patients. And patients and families love it!
CL:When you experience pain, the neurotransmitters in the brain go off. By holding Henry, he serves as a temporary distraction from those transmitters. When you have less pain, you decrease depression and increase your serotonin levels. In the situations of some of our hospice patients, some can’t walk and stimulate the brain to increase serotonin. Scientifically, if you lack serotonin, you become depressed and withdrawn. That’s why we feel pet therapy is important in the health of a patient.

About how many visits per week does Henry make?
CL: Henry generally goes to visit patients and families a few times per month. He goes in between nursing visits. We really try to spread visits by hospice staff and volunteers out so that they’re getting my attention and then Henry’s attention— and generally not all in one day. When patients receive care at home, it can feel like Grand Central Station when more than one staff member or volunteer is there at a time, unless they have coordinated the visits.
RK: I used to let Henry roam a patient’s room, but not so much anymore. We still do occasional meet and greets in a closed conference room, but his therapeutic visits are best delivered to patients in beds or on their laps in wheel chairs for a specific time period. That’s where the magic happens for patients. Sometimes family members want to play with Henry and that’s OK, too.

With all of the benefits reaped among patients, do youb plan to expand the program?
RK: We currently have another therapy cat, Folly, who we also fostered and adopted from Providence Animal Center. I wish we could have a pet dedicated for each patient. It’s difficult to find cats that are a good fit for this type of service, but it’s a joy to search for them, especially after we’ve had success with the program. Patients in their later stages of dementia really need comfort, connection and a calming of the mind and body and there aren’t a lot of ways to give it to them. And these cats are an important complementary therapy— they are themselves a non-pharmacologic intervention that provides just the right amount of stimulation and soothing. But we’re thankful that Henry and Folly can provide this. And we will look to reach more people with this important service.


For more information on Xenia Hospice, visit XeniaHospice.com, or call (610) 664-0126.

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life Magazine, June, 2017.