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These disabled animals want to teach your kids about compassion and empathy.

"You will never get someone to blossom without attention and love. If you want to change somebody, treat them kindly."

These disabled animals want to teach your kids about compassion and empathy.
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Dignity Health 2017

G.I. Joe was in a bad place.

He was homeless, living on the street scavenging for food. He was bullied constantly by other dogs — even attacked violently. After losing the use of his hind legs to an injury, Joe had to drag his lower body along the ground when he wanted to move. He was vulnerable, angry, frightened — and a target. Then one day, G.I. Joe was rescued. He was given love, time to heal, and a wheelchair. It's taken years, but empathy and compassion have transformed him. Take a look for yourself:

Joe — better known as G.I. Joe — is happy, healthy, and thriving, thanks to love. All images via Alison Smith/Triple H Farm Miniature Horse Rescue, used with permission.


Now, Joe has a new mission: using his experiences to help teach young kids to prevent bullying by using empathy and compassion.

That’s the idea behind Alison Smith’s Compassion Crew, a little team of dogs and cats with disabilities that team up to help kids understand the abstract concepts of empathy and compassion — and put them to work.

As many adults well know, empathy and compassion aren't skills we're necessarily born knowing how to use well. As the Compassion Crew demonstrates, sometimes the "people" who have the best chance of teaching kids how they work aren’t even people at all.

Smith didn't have the Compassion Crew in mind when she opened her sanctuary farm, Triple H Miniature Horse Rescue, more than a decade ago.

"When I told my accountant that I wanted to open a rescue farm for miniature horses, he laughed at me," said Smith. "He was concerned whether we'd be providing a service anyone needed. I told him if we never rescued a miniature horse, then that was good news since they were clearly all safe and well cared for."

Alison Smith and some members of her multiplying menagerie.

The Triple H farm welcomed its first two miniature horse rescues — Pebbles and Coco — two days after they opened their doors. Since then, they've rescued more than 500 horses and many other animals, including goats, sheep, ducks, chickens, rabbits, and, of course, cats and dogs.

In the winter of 2015, it occurred to Alison that in addition to healing from bullying, the animals at Triple H might be able to teach others a thing or two about bullying itself.

"Kids are sick and tired of hearing about the same old bullying speeches from teachers," said Smith. "I wanted to reach kids in a different way, and introduce them to animals with disabilities. I wanted to tell them why they shouldn’t bully, but also tell them how and show them."

That spark of an idea became the five-member Compassion Crew, where each member has a special message to share.

There’s G.I. Joe, a 3-year-old terrier mix with his trusty wheelchair.

G.I. Joe on the move in the yard.

As a survivor, G.I. Joe has a lot to teach kids about how being the victim of bullying can change us. While G.I. Joe is full of love most of the time, he can still be fearful and even aggressive around other dogs.

"That doesn't make him less lovable," Smith noted. "It teaches kids that being a bully doesn't always happen because someone is just mean. Sometimes really mean things happened to them that made them that way. And G.I. Joe gets better every day because we show him empathy and compassion."

There’s Max, a little 7-year-old shih tzu with a custom wheelchair of his own.

Max may only have three legs, one eye, and half a jaw, but he's still the cuddliest love bug you'll ever meet.

Max's owner didn't give up on him when he was hit by a car; she helped him recover and got him his wheelchair. But after she passed away, Max didn't have a home, so he came to Triple H.

"We like Max because he shows how we can be different and still be loving and nice."

There’s Roy, who was left in a tiny aquarium at a mall pet store, overlooked because of a terrible haircut.

Roy (top left) with a snazzy clip his two best pals, Max and G.I. Joe.

13 years later, Roy is a dashing, handsome poodle who catches lots of eyes. As a member of the Compassion Crew, he's a reminder that judging others by their looks — like bad haircuts or strange clothes — doesn't give them a chance to show us what they're like inside.

"Think of your best friend," Smith said. "Imagine if they were wearing something weird, or had bad hair when you met them. Would you have decided they weren't worth being friends with? Think of all the wonderful memories and experiences you'd have missed!"

There’s Mowgli, who showed up at Triple H rescue one day with untreatable infections in both eyes and now thrives without them.

Mowgli enjoying some time in the autumn leaves.

Mowgli's blindness means she needs a little more help sometimes. Smith said helping her is a great way to practice empathy in real time.

And then there's Martin, a young Labrador cross puppy with boundless love for everyone he meets — even though, like Mowgli, he can't see them.

Martin sits like the very good boy he is.

"Martin loves everyone. He doesn’t care if you’re tall, skinny, have weird hair," gushed Smith. "The only reason he wouldn’t like you is if you treated him badly. Because he can’t see, he can’t prejudge you on your appearance, or make an opinion. He likes you because you’re nice to him."

Very soon there'll be another member of the Compassion Crew, a young mother cat named Nina.

Little Nina and one of her wee kittens.

She was found in the middle of a dusty backroad, huddled atop her three tiny kittens. Nina’s recovering from an eye infection, and she has a birth defect that splits the hemispheres of her lovely little face. She doesn’t look perfect, but she’s a loving mom.

So far, Smith’s Compassion Crew has only visited one school — Highland Acres Elementary.

Compassion Crew! ASSEMBLE! *sounds of arfs and meows*

"When we went to Highland Acres, we said we could stop bullying in 30 seconds or less — if they use empathy and compassion," recalled Smith. "We told them that all of us have superpowers and they’re called empathy and compassion. It was crazy the effect it had on these kids. I didn’t expect that."

From the many letters Smith received afterward, it was clear the visit really resonated.

One of many thank-you letters Smith received.

Starting this winter, Smith will start reaching out to other schools that could welcome the Compassion Crew. "I feel like empathy and compassion are going to be the ticket in turning some of these kids around," she said.

"You will never get someone to blossom without attention and love. If you want to change somebody, you have to treat them kindly. That's true for bullies, too."

This article originally appeared on August 27, 2015

Oh, society! We have such a complicated relationship with relationships.

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This article originally appeared on August 27, 2015

Oh, society! We have such a complicated relationship with relationships.

It starts early, with the movies we are plopped in front of as toddlers.

Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."