Every day I wake up next to a man who makes me smile. Every day I fall in love with him. Due to the selflessness and dedication of others I have a beautiful service dog to help me live a more independent life. She watches over my every step and I walk on.

After many years spent in darkness I have emerged into a world filled with magnificent light so blinding I sometimes pinch myself to make sure it's real. My family and friends are my heart. They gave me hope when there was none, strength when I needed it and love through the darkest of times.

Life is full of obstacles and hardships that often leave us reeling. We're scarred and changed, searching for a reason for it all. Not one of us will be spared the realities of life and the consequences of being. What I am thankful for, today, is the gift of now; the gift of embracing what we have and thanking God every day we have it. I am grateful for hardship. Without it we would never know the preciousness of life and the beauty that can be found in anything if you look at it hard enough. I am grateful for my challenges because they have brought me great strength. I have learned that life molds us into the people we are meant to be.

This Thanksgiving I hope you find yourselves in the presence of family and friends, happy and safe and loved. I hope that no matter your struggle, you, too, can walk on.


Word of Mouth

We heard about her through a friend of a friend. A sick little girl, trapped inside a body that was tired and ravaged by a cruel illness. Her family was praying for a miracle, keeping hope at arm's length but holding on all the same. Her name was Guru Simran and she was 14-years-old. Through the grapevine I heard about her struggle and I wanted to do something to help. I asked my friend if Guru Simran liked dogs and if she would maybe like a visit from Phoebe. Indeed a dog lover, she said yes and asked us to stop by.

I spend my days chatting with teenagers suffering from chronic illness. Some of them have dealt with their affliction since birth and they have never known a life without treatments, medications and hospital stays. This is what they know and they don't question it or wish for anything different. Other children lived healthy, normal lives until one day they were suddenly stricken with cancer, or lupus, or muscular dystrophy, and - without warning- their lives are turned upside down, never to be the same again. Like me, Guru Simran fell into the second category. Like me, she was a happy, thriving child who loved sports and school and family, and, like me, her illness struck without warning; her life suddenly broken into two parts, "before" and "after."

Working with chronically ill kids and having a chronic illness, myself, I have seen people deal with their situations in all sorts of ways. Some of the children I work with are angry. Many are depressed, hopeless, wishing with all their might for a way to make the pain stop. Some of them act like jerks and they are pissed off for being dealt such a heavy hand. Nobody blames them.

One smoky Saturday a couple of months ago I drove to UCLA Medical Center with Phoebe in tow. On the drive over I prepared myself for what might await me once I arrived. In my mind I imagined a sad, angry kid- Depressed and reserved, giving the world the finger for being so cruel.

Don't take it personally if she doesn't smile at you. She's very sick and has probably had it up to here with people trying to cheer her up.

My friend and his girlfriend, whose teenage daughter attended school with Guru Simran, met me in the lobby and together we took the elevator up to the pediatric intensive care unit. Phoebe, fully dressed in her red vest and fancy service dog outfit, seemed excited. Like she knew we were going to visit someone important and special.

She was right.

Guru Simran's sister met us outside the unit and escorted us back to a room full of people standing around the bed of a glowing, smiling child. I was taken aback. If it hadn't been for all of the machines and tubes I never would have guessed she was sick. She shone, her smile radiant and strong. Her mother and sister welcomed and introduced me to Guru Simran. She waved at me. I waved back.

"It's nice to meet you," I said.

The tumor had made it nearly impossible for her to breathe on her own and she couldn’t speak because of her tracheotomy. She smiled and mouthed the words, "Nice to meet you."

She wasn't angry. She wasn't bitter. She wasn't any of the things I had prepared myself for on the drive over. She was the opposite of those things. This little girl who had gone from healthy to critically ill and bedridden in a matter of months was happy. She gave everyone in the room her complete and undivided attention when they spoke, even as a nurse entered to adjust her tubing and to apply suction. I got the feeling that she was taking care of us.

Her eyes lit up when she saw Phoebe, and Phoebe rushed over to the bed to greet her. They hit it off. So much, in fact, that we maneuvered the pumps and tubing so that Phoebe could jump up onto the bed and cuddle with her.

We spent the next couple of hours getting acquainted. Her mother told me they were using sign language to be able to more effectively communicate with Guru Simran. She told me about her daughter and how patient she was. How wise. How kind and caring, despite how trapped she must have felt inside her own body. I sat on her bed and she showed me pictures of her friends back at school. She showed me pictures of her boyfriend, of her birthday party just weeks before her hospitalization when things began to take a turn for the worse. She loved food, so when her boyfriend came to Los Angeles to visit she put together a list of her favorite eateries for him to enjoy. She showed me the list and we talked about cupcakes and bread and ice cream. I found myself drawn to her. I noticed Phoebe was, too.

As the weeks passed I visited the family as often as I could. I introduced my boyfriend, Steven, to Guru Simran a few days after our first encounter. He, too, fell in love with her. We brought her the Wizard of Oz; a film she had never seen. During our following visit she told me that she liked the cowardly lion the best. A while later, Steven and I took a trip up to Cayucos. Being a flea market/antique/thrift store addict I dragged him into a little place full of old movie memorabilia. As I fanned through a bunch of behind the scenes photos I came across a great shot of Bert Lahr dressed as the lion. We bought it for Guru Simran and her mom hung it up on the wall.

Once she had stabilized enough to be sent home from the hospital on life support we still came by to visit. I brought her a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird, one of my all time favorites. Steven and I read her almost the entire first chapter before she got tired.

The last time I saw her she shared with us some writing from her special folder. She was a beautiful writer. Her words and ideas were so far beyond her years it amazed me. Even as a little girl she was so insightful. I told her I wanted a copy of one of her poems. I wanted to frame it.

The following two weeks were busy and I wasn’t able to visit her like I’d wanted. I wanted to finish To Kill A Mockingbird. I wanted her to see Phoebe.

I received word one Thursday morning that Guru Simran had passed away. Steven and I knew she was very sick but I really believed in my heart that she would pull through. She lit up everything and everyone and I wanted her to stay.

When she was in the hospital I had made her a mixed CD with a bunch of random music on it. One of my favorite tracks was “Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel. It reminded me of her. I worried my indie rock weirdness would be too much for her to handle and she would hate it, but true to form, the kid had fantastic taste.

I only knew her for a short time but I will never, ever forget Guru Simran and her family. She reminded me how blessed I am to have made it through my illness, how blessed we all are, just to be. I never once heard her voice but she said so much. She was magic.

I wanted to share this story here because if it hadn’t been for Phoebe, I probably would never have met Guru Simran. I am grateful for Phoebe just as I am grateful for knowing Guru Simran. Their kindness and love humble me.

“What a beautiful face I have found in this place that is circling all ‘round the sun
When we meet on a cloud I’ll be laughing out loud I’ll be laughing at everyone I see
Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all.”


After a year of crazy/awesome/bizarre/frustrating/hilar/stressful/eye-opening experences with Pheebmeister, I decided to make a documentary about service dogs to better inform the public about the work of these very special fur balls. I've spent the last two weeks filming in Kansas, shadowing with the CARES organization and talking with some truly amazing families. I'm excited about the film and its potential to educate and inform. Phoebe is excited, too, but mostly about her IMDB credit. The other day she was all, "Get me a dog latte." and I was like, "What does that mean?" and she was like, "A latte for me, a dog, because you have been filming me and I am famous and where is my dog latte?" It was really cute.

Stay tuned for lots of pics of Concordia, KS and lots of dogs.


It Was All Up to Me to Decide

Four years ago today I graduated from high school in Leawood, Kansas. I was still in a wheelchair, still ghostly pale from six years in the dark. I dyed my hair black and got a tattoo and tried with all my might to make up for lost time and to join my friends in their teen rebellion. I had seen so much and experienced things that most people never do, yet my naivety to the ways of the "real" world, the "healthy" world, became painfully obvious when I moved to Los Angeles. I knew how to access a port-a-cath yet I never learned how to parallel park. I could rattle off the unsafe list of medications for porphyria patients in my sleep but I didn't know how to pay a cable bill or use a coin laundry machine. I was determined to learn everything that everyone else knew as quickly as I could. To be normal. To pretend that they last six years had never happened. I was in such a rush to play catch up with myself that I missed the opportunity to sit back and enjoy being alive and mobile and to take it all in.

I used to have a website called We All Have Stories. It provided me with an outlet to vent about crappy nurses and bad stomach pain and missing out on things like prom and learning to drive and other teenage crap. Last fall I was reading over some of my old entries and I found some letters I had written to myself about my uncertain future. After reading them I decided to write a response to myself, four years older and maybe (?) a little bit wiser.

My old writing is in italics. Whoomp, here it is.

Dear Lauren,

It’s been four years and I have some things to tell you.

Two weeks ago I wiggled my toes. I've gotten better at it, too. At first it would take me ten minutes just to move a toe. Now it’s a matter of seconds. It's the craziest feeling ever. Crazy, awesome, amazing, mind-blowing. The other night I made my thigh and the top of my foot move. Not just the toes- the foot. I am going to walk again. There is no doubt in my mind.

First, you walked again. You went to therapy every day and you worked with Brendan and April and they helped you. You had lots of surgeries and injections and treatments and now you can walk pretty much like a normal person. Some days the Tiny Tim limp is worse than others, but it’s okay. You’re so much better than you ever thought you could be. Sometimes you have panic attacks because it all catches up with you. It hits you that you’re not in bed anymore and the world suddenly seems really big. It feels like you’ve tripped and you’re falling down really fast and no one’s there to catch you, like when you used to run up the stairs and you’d miss a step.

Sometimes I get scared that the past few months have been a dream and none of what has happened is real. It's an amazing feeling to know that you have a future. To know that you can be happy. I realize I see the world the way a child does. Like everything around me is a miracle. As ridiculous as it seems to marvel at a tree swaying in the wind or at a mother holding her little girl's hand in a grocery store parking lot, I can't help it. Everything old is new again.

After you learned to walk again you moved to Los Angeles. Remember when you were in the hospital and you’d make mom go to blockbuster and rent like 8 movies for you at once? You’d fall asleep to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and you memorized everything, every line, every shot, of Badlands. Now you make movies and you write stories and it’s the only thing that you want to do for the rest of your life. You’ve found your passion and for that, you are blessed.

A couple of weeks ago I ate my first meal at the first restaurant I had been to in over four years. If you ask me, taste is kind of a miracle. Even if you don't ask me, I'll tell you. It's a miracle. As I ate salmon and pie and partook in enjoyable conversation with my best friend, I thought to myself, "Oh, yeah... THIS is what it's like to be alive." I'd almost forgotten. Almost.

I think you should know that what you’ve been through with your illness is really hard and I know that you’ve suffered a lot. But here’s the thing that I think you should know: It only gets harder. Life. It’s not easy and you’re not exempt from the “regular person” hard stuff just because you’ve been through hell. I know a part of you thought that God was going to wave a wand and grant you a trouble-free existence, but that’s the Brothers Grimm version of your story. It isn’t real.

I'm real again. Not that I was fake before, but I didn't feel like a real person. I felt like a shell of the person I used to be. A shadow in the dark. It was like I was watching life on a 5", black and white television and nothing was on the screen but static. Now, I'm not watching life. I'm living it. I'm experiencing it. I'm tasting it.

There are a lot of things that you aren’t going to know how to do. The thing about missing ages 14-20 is that you miss a lot of experiences that help you to grow up. You learn how to say “no,” you learn how to fight with friends and stand up for yourself. You grown into your own skin and you learn to like it. To be comfortable with it. To own it. The thing that you missed out on was growing up. Overnight you went from healthy to sick, just as overnight you went from little girl to grown up. You fell asleep and you woke up different, like Rip Van Winkle. Sometimes you’ll get confused when the check out guy at Gelson’s calls you “ma’am.” You’ll look behind you, thinking he’s talking to someone else because who calls a 14 year old “ma’am?” But you’re not 14 anymore. You’re all grown up.

I believe in the existence of God. A higher power. Something bigger than us. I believe in fate/miraculous occurrences rather than coincidence. I believe that God, (he/she/it), provides us with the strength we need to survive difficult times in our lives.

The world is full of wonderful people. You’ve been fortunate enough to meet many of them since you’ve moved to los angeles. But there’s a lot of bad, too, and I want you to know that some people will hurt you if you let them. Don’t let them. Be strong. Be you. The wonderful thing about surviving what you have, about cheating death, is that no matter what you face in the future, you can face it with confidence because you know that you can do anything. You can beat anything.

But I also believe we have to be our own source of strength; our own "something bigger." Sometimes we have to take things into our own hands and say, "You know what? It doesn’t matter what doctors say. It doesn’t matter what anyone says. This is my life and the only one who is going to make it better is me." Sometimes we have to stop listening to other people and start listening to ourselves. Sometimes we have to make our own miracles.

That’s all I wanted to tell you. Don’t get so used to your good health that you take it for granted. Remember the fight. Remember the newness. And if you remember nothing else, remember the love.




The Blind Leading the Way

People are often surprised and confused when I explain the kind of work that Phoebe does for me.

"So... You're not blind?"

"No, I have leg problems. Phoebe helps me with my balance and muscle strength issues."

"Oh, so like a seeing eye dog?"

"Nope. Still not blind."

Most people don't know about the many different types of services animals that do amazing work for people with all kinds of disabilities, many of which are hidden. There are medical alert dogs that are trained to signal when their owner is about to have a seizure or a diabetic crisis. There are hearing dogs to help alert deaf people to unheard dangers, mobility assist dogs to pull wheelchairs and retrieve dropped items, psychiatric service dogs to help people suffering from mental disabilities go out into the world with a greater sense of security or to help people with post-traumatic stress syndrome get through their debilitating flashbacks and night terrors. And, of course, there are seeing eye dogs to help the blind. There are also service ponies and service monkeys. For real. Quite possibly the greatest thing ever.

Am I wrong?

Sometimes people look at me like, "... Really? A Saint Bernard?" The reason Saint Bernards and other extra large breed animals are used for stability and balance work (and for other types of service work) is because of their intelligence, patience and their size. The amount of tugging and bracing I do in a day requires that Phoebe be giant. Although most people usually associate golden retrievers, Labradors and German Shepherds with service work, all kinds of breeds are used in the world of service doggery. To name just a few, we have Great Danes, Great Pyrenees, King Charles Spaniels, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Standard and Teacup Poodles, Huskies and Newfoundlands. Pretty much every breed has been used for service dog work at some point. So, the next time you see a lab or a golden retriever, tell him how boring and unoriginal he is.

In closing, I'd like to say thank you to all of you seeing eye dawgs out there, keeping it real and reppin' the old school. You've lead the way.

That's it for now. More SD 411 to come. Sorry about that last sentence.

Henderson out,

If You Don't Know, Now You Know.

Dear Landlords,

Just so you know, you’re not allowed to deny me as a tenant because I own a service animal. It’s kind of a thing. You know, a federal law kind of thing. Also, for future reference, while discussing your property with a disabled potential tenant it might behoove you to leave certain comments out of the conversation. For example, you probably shouldn’t say things like, “So… there will be wheelchair wheels on the hardwood floor… ? Uh.” That’s probably not something you should say. Aside from breaking about fifteen federal ADA and fair housing laws, that’s just rude of you. In fact, sir, I believe it warrants a finger wag.

My service dog is not a pet. I’m going to repeat that one more time for you. MY SERVICE DOG IS NOT A PET. She is a highly trained working dog and a crucial part of my mobility, strength, balance and independence. She has the SAME RIGHTS as human beings when it comes to public access. Therefore, your “no pet” policy does not apply to me. Why? Say it with me, now… Because she is not a pet.
Read about it. Inform yourself.

My dog, like all service animals, does not bark. She does not go to the bathroom inside of the house. She does not chew on things, she does not bite people, she does not make messes or noise. The only time a service dog will make noise is when something is wrong with their owner. For example, if their owner has slipped and fallen and needs an ambulance. Or if they have a seizure or diabetic episode or fall down the stairs or out of their wheelchair and can’t move. These are all times when many service dogs have been trained to alert. This is a good thing for you because if the dog didn’t do his or her job, his or her owner might die and then you would have a dead tenant on your hands and you would be out that month’s rent. I know you wouldn’t like that. One other thing about my service dog: She is immaculately groomed and frankly, is probably cleaner than some of your human tenants.

“I wasn’t aware of the rules” is no longer an acceptable excuse. The internet is a magical thing, full of exciting information on the Americans with Disabilities Act and Fair Housing laws relating to disabled people and service animals. Please, read up. Let’s make this experience more pleasant for the both of us.

If you don’t know, now you know, landlords.

Lauren Henderson and Phoebe the Freaking Service Dog

Domo Arigato, Mrs. Henderson.

Just a little something to start your day off right.

Just Another Year in the Life of a Saint Bernard Service Dog (D-D-Dog, D-D-Dog...)

Phoebe the dog has had quite a year exploring Los Angeles. She made friends with Spider-Man and Marilyn Monroe on Hollywood Boulevard, took a ride on a double decker tour bus and played in the dog park underneath the Hollywood sign. She even went to a Cirque Du Soleil show in Las Vegas and was called up on stage and swung from a trapeze and landed in a pool of cake and fire! That last part wasn't "true" in the sense that I was "lying." She really went to the show, though. She has met so many people and given me so many stories to tell that I hardly know where to start. So, I'll open with pictures. Everyone loves pictures. Horray, pictures!

This boss has a pretty great life. Then again, so do I.


P.S. The rest is still unwritten.