Sunday, May 20, 2012

Guest Blog Post: A Diabetes Service Dog for Sarah

Here at the Angry Type 2 Diabetic, we see 'ourselves' as a voice to ALL persons with diabetes... So, even though we generally use this space to share about our own type 2 diabetic experiences, we'd like to cheerfully lend the spotlight, this week, to our friend, Michelle. Michelle is a wonderful mom to a type 1 diabetic child, and she has a very important message to share with ALL of you. You may find Michelle's regular blogging space at The Tightrope Tango, and show her some follow love.  
My name is Michelle, and first I want to thank my good friend Lizmari for lending me space on her awesome blog. Lizmari is an awesome advocate for all people living with diabetes, regardless of type. She’s also the reason we enjoyed some pretty awesome Ice Cream Sundae’s last August.

Most people I talk to (and I talk quite a lot these days) have never heard of a diabetes alert dog. We all know about Guide Dogs for the Blind, and most of us have heard of dogs to assist people with other disabilities such as mobility, seizures, hearing, etc. Diabetes alert dogs are specially trained dogs that focus on the scent of their person, and let that person know when their blood sugar begins to drop to an unsafe level. These dogs are most commonly used by people with type 1 diabetes, but some with type 2 diabetes are also using diabetes alert dogs to keep them safe.

Why is this necessary? Well, a lot of diabetics either never have, or lose the ability over time to sense changes in blood sugar. My daughter, Sarah, is 12. She’s had type 1 diabetes for about two and a half years. Since the beginning she’s had trouble recognizing when her blood sugar is low, until it is dangerously low (sometimes in the 40’s and 50’s mg/dL). Normal blood sugar (for a non-diabetic) ranges from around 70mg/dL to 130mg/dL. If blood sugar drops too low, unconsciousness, seizures, and death can occur. Sarah has difficulty feeling drops in her blood sugar during the day, but she does not feel them at night, period. Since she’s been diagnosed, she has never… not once… woken because she felt a low blood sugar. That is scary. The JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) reports that 1 in 20 people with type 1 diabetes will DIE of a low blood sugar. 1 in 20! That's not a typo. It's not 1 in 20,000, it's 1 in 20. ( I can’t let my beautiful child become a statistic, so right now I set alarms for 10:30, 11:30, and 2am. Sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on her food and activity for the previous day.

But I’m not perfect, and I make mistakes.

Once, last December, she went extremely low (27mg/dL). She was unresponsive. It was only around midnight and I only caught the low because I checked on her and found that she was horribly pale and covered in sweat. I saved her life that night, because she was still dropping and the body can't sustain a blood sugar much lower than that for very long. If I hadn't checked on her, she very easily could have slipped into a coma and been gone by morning.

We tried a CGM (continuous glucose monitor) but Sarah has a metal allergy and gets a severe rash. This is where the diabetes alert dog comes in. Diabetes alert dogs are not for everyone. They require a lot of care. They eat a lot, they poop a lot. Honestly, in the beginning I thought that a diabetes alert dog was too much responsibility for a child. But my child proved me wrong by volunteering many hours every month with Guide Dogs for the Blind. She learned to handle, groom, and correct them. She grew to love her new friends, and has taken weekend responsibility for a Guide Dog puppy on a number of occasions. 

I believe that in a few years, maybe 5, maybe 20, that diabetes alert dogs will be much more common and understood. Discounting the fact that an alert dog is a living animal, an alert dog is a medical device, a tool. An alert dog is always on watch with their wonderful nose. An alert dog can think, and will go find help if their charge doesn’t respond to their warnings. Guide Dogs call it intelligent disobedience, a term that describes when a dog makes a decision to take an action outside its normal training that is in the best interest of their person. This could be a dog that leaves Sarah’s side during school to go take the alert to the teacher or other adult. This could be leaving Sarah’s room during the night to come into my room and let me know that Sarah needs help.

The last thing I’d like to say to everyone who reads this is to not discount the needs of someone with diabetes simply because they don’t have an obvious disability. Many kids, like my Sarah, are active, funny, enthusiastic, and because their health, food and activity is watched very closely, they often appear healthier than the average child their age. I’ve had a few eyerolls when I’ve told people that my bouncy child, who just exudes health and vitality, needs a service dog to keep her safe. For someone with type 1 diabetes, safe and healthy require a lot of work, lots of acting on instinct, guesswork, etc. It’s not as easy as it looks, and even with constant effort we have lows and highs that could not have been predicted. Diabetes is always. It never stops. It never goes away or gives us a break. Sarah takes large doses of insulin 4-6 times a day. Any one of those could send her to a fatal low if she or I misjudge the carbohydrates in her food or misjudge how her activity will affect her.

Can you be 100% right ALL the time?

At this time, diabetes alert dogs are not covered by insurance. Those of us who have made this choice for our child must generally pay for the cost of training the dog. My hope is that once the abilities of these dogs are more fully understood and accepted, more groups like Guide Dogs for the Blind can be formed to raise funds and provide these amazing dogs at low or no charge to the family. The first step in making this a reality is education. Tell someone you know about these dogs, and help spread the word. Even if you don’t know someone with diabetes, someone you know does.

Talk. Educate. Your words can help save someone’s life.

If you’d like to learn more about Sarah’s journey to a diabetes alert service dog, please visit either her facebook page at or her website at Sarah’s dog is coming from Canine Hope for Diabetics in Riverside, CA, hopefully in early 2013. 


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