“What is diabetes?” and “Why do diabetics need service dogs?” These are questions I’m often asked and have lectured about many times. Until I read the lead article in the last edition of Early Alert Canines “The Scentinel”, I’d never thought of talking about diabetes in terms of what life with diabetes entails. I had always spoken from the scientific or physiological orientations of diabetes – describing what is physically wrong with the body, and what a diabetic needs to do in order to take care of themselves from a medical perspective. Although I’ve lived with diabetes my entire life, and know every aspect as well as anyone can, I’ve never thought about describing diabetes from the “psychosocial” perspective. (Psychosocial is a fancy word that means the psychological, social, and non-biological impact a disease has on an individual, family, and the society.)
Beyond the fact that the diabetic body does not produce insulin (or enough insulin), life with diabetes is a difficult and complex balancing act – for some reason, I’ve always visualized it as a mobile. We must try to balance the insulin we give ourselves (for type 1 diabetes, or deal with not enough insulin if you have type 2), with the food we eat and exercise we get. Some of the other factors influencing the balance are illness, growth, emotions, stress, medications, amount of sleep, hormones, etc. And, if that isn’t enough, part of taking care of the disease includes constant monitoring with finger sticks, gathering data, counting carbs, pumping or injecting insulin, and/or taking other medications, calculating ratios, thinking backward while projecting forward, and correcting imbalances, as well as talking with doctors and reaching for support. Oh, and I forgot to include trying to lead a “normal” and active life. Keeping the ‘mobile’ of life with diabetes is, to say the least, challenging.
Another aspect of life with diabetes is less apparent to the observer. It is the stress and fear of living with this chronic disease. There is the fear of “losing control” or having low blood sugars. Untreated low blood sugar can lead to loss of balance and coordination, confusion, impaired thinking, bad decisions, vision changes, agitation, loss of consciousness and possibly death. Friends and family members share these concern about the diabetic – especially parents of young diabetics. Parents often wake-up multiple times a night to check their child’s blood sugar to ensure the child’s safety (and to try to increase their own peace of mind). Diabetes affects the child because she knows she “doesn’t feel good” but may not realize it is because her blood sugar is out of control. And children are often ostracized for having diabetes because they are ‘different’. We often check our blood sugar because of “feeling funny” or before driving, taking tests or doing physical activity to try to avoid problems and ensure everyone’s safety Also, there are the physical discomforts (which makes me cranky) and ever-present fear of long-term complications which come from the blood sugar’s varying highs and lows. All of these affect the diabetic and those who love and care for this person.
I am amazed to write all of this! I feel like I should be overwhelmed; yet, for me, everything I’ve written about is part of my daily life
Now, to attempt to explain why someone like me (someone with diabetes) would have a service dog: A diabetic alert dog’s fundamental job is to alert the diabetic, or diabetic’s care-taker, to sudden changes in blood sugar so that precautionary measures can be taken. My diabetic alert dog, Rainie, alerts me to both highs and lows in any location – in the house, while I’m asleep, while we’re out and about, on airplanes, in restaurants, hospitals, libraries, at the movies, etc. When she warns me, I am able to take steps to avoid the situation worsening and becoming dangerous. I tell people that when Rainie alerts me, she is warning me to pay attention to my blood sugar – it is changing quickly. With her, I feel safer. I have another ally and tool to assist me in monitoring my diabetes. She is my constant companion. I no longer feel alone, or as overwhelmed in dealing with this disease. Parents who have alert dogs for their diabetic children have another way to monitor their child. Since parents have no physical sense of their child’s blood sugar levels, the dog’s alerts give them advanced warning, insight, and, hopefully, peace of mind.
I’d like to repeat what Devin stated in her article: “Though it is critical for every diabetic to understand the underlying cause of his or her condition, we might generate greater public understanding if we start talking less about what doesn’t work in our bodies and more about everything we do to set that right. The next time someone asks about your diabetes, try telling them what you are doing to take care of yourself (sic). It might give them a better understanding of diabetes, and it will certainly clue them in to how totally awesome you are.”