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Making Magic – Early Alert Canines’ “1st Annual 2-4-1 Walk”

At the starting line EAC's 1st Annual 2-4-1 Walk

At the starting line
EAC’s 1st Annual 2-4-1 Walk

Have you ever had that feeling from deep within that you know you are helping to create something magical?  This feeling truly came to light for me this past Saturday at the Early Alert Canines “1st Annual 2-4-1 Walk” (2 feet, 4 paws, 1 cause!).  About 75 people, escorted by 15 dogs, came together as a community to share their support for EAC, and show their enthusiasm for training diabetic alert dogs.

As we walked around the small lake, admiring the fountain and enjoying the sunshine, we talked.  Here are a few of the stories that were shared with me:

Lalu, a very vocal black lab-golden mix that was teamed with her young (about 6 year-old) partner and her family in April, alerted from across the gym as the little girl’s blood sugar sky-rocketed while she was performing on the uneven parallel bars at a gymnastics event.  This was somewhat embarrassing since Lalu’s vocal volume increases with the intensity of her alerting.

Again, Lalu, who is terrified by water, alerted while her young charge was swimming.  Lalu’s alert for dropping blood sugar is to raise her paw and touch.  As Lalu was alerting, she was walking toward the pool on three legs as she kept her ‘alerting’ paw raised, calling the whole time.

Jedi, was also placed with his new family in April (his young diabetic responsibility is 7). He is the classroom’s favorite ‘visitor’ each day he is bought to work there with his new ‘mom’.  Apparently, all the kids were incredibly disappointed when “Just the Mom!” came on their field trip to the zoo, with no Jedi.  (Bringing a service dog to the zoo might evoke the “pray instincts” in the caged animals.  It is recommended they not be taken to places with wild animals – even caged.)

Both Jedi’s and Lalu’s ‘parents’ expressed how much comfort is having the dogs.  They said there are no words to express what it’s like to have another set of eyes (or nose in this case) looking over their diabetic children.  And the peace of mind knowing they’ll be told about potential problems before a true emergence happens, even if it means being awakened at night, is a great relief.

On a different note, it was great to hear that one of the EAC trainers is making an ‘office-call’ to try to help resolve an alerting issue that is arising at someone’s work.

Even us “old –times” shared stories of our own: my dog, Rainie, alerting me while on the beach; and the quiet assurance provided by Norm to his T1D ‘dad’ who lives alone.  And Jason, is full of stories of how “Eli” alerts him while he’s traveling for work – regardless if it’s on a plane, in a restaurant or hotel, etc. And, yes, Eli even alerts at home and in the car.

It was an incredible honor/pleasure/moment-of-pride for me to see so much participation and enthusiasm for what EAC does.  I want to thank our ‘new recruits’ (dogs in the process of being scent trained), the families fostering them, the newly placed teams, the training/office staff, us “old-timers” and everyone else who have ever supported EAC or donated to our fundraiser.  I hope that everyone realizes that you, too, are helping to create some magic.

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Three New Teams Graduate at Early Alert Canines!

"Lucy" and her boys

“Lucy” and her boys

Yesterday, Early Alert Canines celebrated another major milestone.

Three diabetic alert dogs teams were officially ‘handed their leashes’ in an emotional graduation ceremony.*  One team consisted of “Mr. Brooks”, a petite, yellow Labra-doodle and his new mistress, a long-term diabetic, soon to be retired, who lives alone.  However, for two of these celebrated teams, the ‘clients’ are actually families with multiple diabetic members.  In one family, “Lucy”, a happy and energetic yellow Lab-golden retriever mix, watches over a family with three young boys, two of whom have diabetes; and in the other family, “Bender”, a mellow, loving, gigantic black Lab/golden retriever mix alerts to three home-schooled children and their father.

All of these dogs are alerting to both high and low blood sugars.  Lucy and Bender have been trained to alert one of the parents if their charges’ blood sugars are dropping at any time, day or night.  One of Lucy’s ‘guys’ cannot sense his blood sugar at all (called hypoglycemic unawareness), and her special skills and talents are especially important for this ‘human partner’.  In the five months since the dogs have been placed in their new homes, there has been a decrease in the number of ‘dangerous lows’ and ‘unbelievable highs’, and an overall improvement of the diabetics’ blood sugar levels.  These are very busy dogs!

We like to say that diabetic alert dogs (DADs) are life-saving dogs and a diabetic’s best friend.  They are trained to alert when a diabetic’s blood sugar drops rapidly so that steps can be taken to prevent serious situations.   And low blood sugar can lead to unconsciousness and death.   So, yes, they can literally help save lives.

They also help to save lives in a more figurative manner. Their warnings help to bring a sense of peace of mind and security by providing yet another ‘warning system’ to keep the diabetic’s blood sugar in check.  The dogs can often sense the fact that the blood sugar is going to drop, before it actually does, thereby giving a truly advanced warning of impending danger.  They provide a sense of companionship for the diabetic, and another “set of eyes and ears” (and nose – in this case), for parents of diabetics.  For the parent of a young diabetic, the dogs help allow for a more restful day and secure sleep, knowing the trained DAD will alert them, even waking them up at night, and bring the parent to the appropriate child if there are multiple diabetic children; and for parents of older diabetic children, say, in college, it is a comfort for the parent to know that, even when away, their child has another ‘early warning system’.  And for the ‘more mature’ single person with diabetes, the DAD helps provide the same physical security and companionship, peace of mind for self, family and friends, and the knowledge, to all, that self or loved-one has another helping ‘nose’ and is never alone.

CONGRATULATIONS to all the teams, old and new.  May you continue to have a life of fulfillment and happiness, and peace of mind.

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* To achieve “graduation status”, the new teams must demonstrate an 85% or better alerting accuracy rate.  This means that the dog must correctly alert t >85% of the blood sugar changes tested and recorded by the diabetic client, in multiple and various situations; and the client must recognize the alert and respond appropriately.

 

 

Service Dogs Pick Up Scent of Diabetes Danger

Here is an incredible article posted by the Wall Street Journal (December 10, 2012) that does a phenomenal job explaining the life saving role and purpose of Diabetic Alert Dogs.

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Service Dogs Pick Up Scent of Diabetes Danger

By KATE LINEBAUGH

About two times a night, Shana Eppler wakes up to an alarm and slips into her daughter Abbie’s room to test the 8-year-old’s blood sugar.

The growing field of diabetic-alert dogs that save their diabetic owners’ lives by sniffing out when blood sugar levels get out of whack.
 

 Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of 4, Abbie experiences low blood-sugar levels, a potentially dangerous condition known as hypoglycemia that can cause the loss of consciousness.

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Celeste, a yellow Labrador, has been at the side of 15-year-old Type 1 diabetes patient Dylan Calamoneri for about a year.
 

The alarm Ms. Eppler uses to avoid a health emergency is a furry one named Gracie, an 70-pound, 3-year-old British Labrador retriever trained to sniff out high and low blood-sugar levels. When Abbie’s sugar level rises or falls below a certain target at night, Gracie rings a bell and Ms. Eppler gets up.”The scenting part comes naturally,” says Ms. Eppler, of Colorado Springs, Colo. “They are hunting blood sugars instead of ducks.”

Diabetic, or hypoglycemic, “alert dogs” are a growing class of service dogs best known for guiding the visually impaired, sniffing out drugs and bombs, or providing mobility assistance for people with severe disabilities. Most recently, they have been trained to sniff out cancer and oncoming seizures. Toni Eames, president of International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, estimates there are over 30,000 assistance dogs working in the U.S., including dogs that have been trained by individuals.

The dog’s accuracy and speed can beat medical devices, such as glucose meters and continuous glucose monitors, according to doctors, owners and trainers. With their acute sense of smell, the dogs—mostly retrievers—are able to react to a scent that researchers haven’t yet identified.

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Eight-year-old Abbie Eppler has avoided health emergencies thanks to Gracie, a 70-pound British Labrador retriever who wakes up Abbie’s mother when the child’s blood-sugar level rises or falls below a certain target at night.

For centuries, doctors diagnosed diabetes by identifying sweetness in the urine of a patient. That scent comes from glucose that isn’t absorbed when a person lacks insulin, but the chemicals produced during low-blood-sugar incidents have yet to be identified.

“Whatever is being secreted in that drop in blood sugar…we just don’t know what it is,” says Dana Hardin, a pediatric endocrinologist who works for Eli Lilly & Co. in Indianapolis. Her goal is to identify what chemical compound the dogs smell, “not only to train dogs but to possibly make a device,” she says.

Most of the interest in diabetic-alert dogs comes from people with Type 1 diabetes—and parents of children with Type 1—because they are more susceptible than people with Type 2 diabetes to serious problems of low blood sugar. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease characterized by the absence of insulin production, and requires daily insulin injections. People with Type 2, which is brought on by a combination of genetics, inactivity and obesity, have trouble processing insulin but don’t necessarily require external insulin.

Incidence of Type 1 has been rising in the U.S. by about 2.5% to 4% a year for reasons scientists can’t explain, according to several large-scale studies published in peer-reviewed medical journals. The number of people with Type 1 diabetes in the U.S. is between 1.3 million and 2.6 million, accounting for 5% to 10% of the total diabetic

Type 1 diabetics work to balance their daily intake of carbohydrates with external insulin. Prolonged high sugar levels can lead to complications such as heart disease, kidney failure and neuropathy. But trying to keep sugars at a low level raises the risk of hypoglycemia, which can be lethal, particularly if a patient loses consciousness while driving or alone.

Many people develop a condition known as hypoglycemia unawareness, meaning they no longer feel the hunger, listlessness and irritability that typically alerts diabetics that their blood-sugar level is falling.

“They don’t get the signs. They just can be having a normal conversation, go from feeling fine to passing out,” says Dr. Hardin.

Diabetics can use technologies such as continuous glucose monitors to help prevent these episodes, but these don’t record blood-sugar drops until after they happen. So hypoglycemic-alert dogs can be lifesavers, says Dr. Hardin, who presented the first scientific research on the dogs at this year’s annual American Diabetes Association conference in Philadelphia.

Using perspiration samples from patients whose sugars were below 65 milligrams a deciliter—normal is 80-120 mg/dL—she trained a two-year-old Labrador/Golden retriever mix to recognize low blood-sugar samples placed in blinded containers on a Lazy Susan-like wheel. Modeled after how police sniffing dogs are trained, trainers around the country use similar techniques. Dr. Hardin’s dog was then paired with Dustin Hillman, a 36-year-old patient who suffered severe hypoglycemic unawareness.

Before he got the dog, Mr. Hillman lost consciousness due to hypoglycemia more than six times over the previous two weeks, requiring emergency services. In the three months after, the owner only lost consciousness once and never required emergency service, according to the study.

Since having Tippy—short for Tippecanoe—Mr. Hillman has finished his dissertation and will receive his Master’s in Chemistry on Sunday from Purdue University. He had been on the verge of dropping out of school and moving back in with his parents, he says.

A fully trained diabetic-alert dog can cost as much as $20,000. Many families conduct fundraisers to afford them. Nonprofit training centers offer dogs free of charge, or ask for a nominal fee, but the waiting lists are long.

Andrea Calamoneri, whose 15-year-old son Dylan has had Type 1 diabetes for nearly a decade, said she was initially skeptical. “I wasn’t about to trust my son’s life to something that is voodoo,” she says. Seeing a dog respond to a low sugar reading convinced her. “It gives you chills when you see it happen.”

Celeste, a 60-pound yellow Labrador, has been at Dylan’s side for about a year. A few weeks ago, when Dylan got home from a 2½-hour wrestling practice, Ms. Calamoneri expected his sugars to drop. By bedtime, they hadn’t. In the middle of the night, Celeste nudged the Danville, Calif., mother of three awake. Dylan’s sugar level was 56, well below the target of 80.

“Your first reaction when you wake up is you almost want to say go back to bed, but you have to trust her and, sure enough, she’s right,” Ms. Calamoneri says.

She says the dog has alerted them of a pending drop in blood sugar well before the drop occurred. Celeste has missed an occasional alert, she says, which she attributes to a busy day when the dog got overly tired. Mostly, the dog naps whenever she is able, and typically the smell of a dropping sugar level will jolt her awake, Ms. Calamoneri says.

Interest in diabetic-alert dogs is rising, says Ed Peebles, president of the Las Vegas-based National Institute for Diabetic Alert Dogs, who says he gets up to 20 applications for a dog daily.

A family business his mother, a nurse, started a decade ago, the for-profit group has four locations, is hiring trainers and can’t prepare enough dogs to keep up with demand, Mr. Peebles says. He charges $18,000 for one fully trained dog between 10 months and a 1½ years old.

“We have seen a huge, huge spike in interest,” Mr. Peebles said. “I am five dogs behind.”

Ms. Eppler’s dog, Gracie, is always working. She bows to signal a low blood sugar and waves a raised paw to show a high level. When Gracie waves and then bows, it means that Abbie’s sugar is high but falling. “Rarely will Gracie let Abbie get below 90,” she says. “We joke that they are angels with fur.”

Write to Kate Linebaugh at kate.linebaugh@wsj.com

The “Mobile” of Life with Diabetes

IMG_1021“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

Rainie love

Rainie love

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.”

Text from a Guest Blog I Wrote for “Bitter-sweet Diabetes”

Here is the text of the guest blog I wrote for “Bitter-Sweet Diabetes”.  Please click on these links if you would like to see the final versions:

http://www.bittersweetdiabetes.com/2012/09/life-with-diabetic-alert-dog-part-1.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Bitter-sweetDiabetesBlog+%28Bitter-Sweet+Diabetes+Blog%29

http://www.bittersweetdiabetes.com/2012/09/life-with-diabetic-alert-dog-part-2.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Bitter-sweetDiabetesBlog+%28Bitter-Sweet+Diabetes+Blog%29

IMG950618Life with a Diabetic Alert Dog

Rainie is my diabetic alert dog, and even though I’ve experienced lots of changes and advancements in diabetic technology since I was diagnosed 55 years ago, nothing has changed my life as much as Rainie has.  I hope to explain about diabetic alert dogs (DADs), and tell you some stories about how she has impacted my life.  Please note: when I refer to Rainie’s training, or the training of a DAD, I am talking only about the training Rainie has received.  I help to train the dogs at Early Alert Canines (EAC), and am supported by EAC’s head trainer, Carol Edwards, in order to keep Rainie certified with ADI (Assistance Dogs International).

First, let me answer this question: What is a Diabetic Alert Dog (also known as a Hypoglycemic Alert Dog)?

A diabetic alert dog (DAD) has been trained to recognize the biochemical scent that a diabetic’s body produces as the blood glucose begins to drop.  Upon smelling the scent, the dog will then alert its partner, thus avoiding acutely dangerous hypoglycemia and long-term diabetes complications.  Some DADs are trained to smell and alert on the scent of rapidly rising blood sugar also.

Rainie and I have been a team for over two years now.  When we were placed together, she was a semi-rowdy, 20 month-old, golden retriever/yellow Lab puppy.  She was raised as a seeing-eye puppy, but was ‘career-changed’ and trained as a DAD because she is very afraid of motorcycles.  Now, she is my best friend, non-judgmental companion and perpetual blood sugar alert system. Because she is a service dog, she can come with me anyplace the general public is allowed.  And her presence and constant monitoring allows me to experience a greater peace of mind.  I’m more confident because she will alert me before I get into trouble.

I like to consider her alerts a warning, as if she’s telling me, “Pay attention to your blood sugar NOW!  You’re changing fast.”   Her alerts begin as gentle nudges that will get stronger if I ignore her – even to the point of getting my husband, daughter, or a friend if I’m not paying attention.  Rainie has been trained to be ‘on duty’ no matter where we are or what we’re dong.  She has alerted me in places like the movies, on hikes, while I’m in the shower, in restaurants, at the farmers’ market, on airplanes, working in the garden, at the doctor’s office, while I’m swimming at the gym, etc.  She will wake me up at night (which is important), and once got my husband from another room when I was sick with a high fever, and was too asleep to notice her nudges, which proceeded to her lying on top of me.  She alerts me when I’m driving, and has blocked me from getting into the driver’s seat when she’s felt my blood sugar is too low – and she was right each time!

There are many wonderful things about having a DAD.  First of all, her alerting indicates my BS is dropping at this instance.  In fact sometimes the dogs alert before the meters can measure a change.  They can even smell that your blood sugar is going to drop soon! (And this is much more accurate that the 20 minute delay of a continuous glucose monitor.)  The first time Rainie alerted me early, I was at work.  I did my BS and it was 180 after breakfast – that number was expected, so I did my BS again 10 minutes later (as I’m supposed to do), and it was about 182.  But she kept alerting me! I repeated a test again 10 minutes later, and the reading was 179. Yet Rainie kept alerting.  Finally, I tested myself a fourth time, and my BS had dropped 100 points!  I was amazed, and ate some glucose.  Another pleasure about DADs is that their alerting is consistent and non-judgmental.  I don’t tend to get annoyed at Rainie like I would if my husband told me, “Hilary, don’t you think you should check your blood sugar?” I know she’s alerting out of duty and love.  And by alerting when my BS (blood sugar) begins to drop quickly, I can often avoid going too high afterword (often called ‘re-bounding).  My liver no longer has the need to push glucose out into my blood stream because my blood sugar levels haven’t gone so low that the liver is signaled to correct the hypoglycemia.  Having a dog is also a wonderful way to meet people, get exercise, and I find I’m not so self-conscious about having diabetes.  People will ask me, “What does she do?” or “What does she ‘early alert on?” and I’ll tell them that she is a diabetic alert dog and smells my low blood sugar.  I can then talk about diabetes and DADs without having the focus on me.  But I think the best ‘gift’ I get from having Rainie, my diabetic alert dog, is a fuller sense of peace-of-mind.  I no longer have to fear that my blood sugar will drop and that I’ll be unaware of it.  I can exercise, drive, and do almost anything while not worrying that I’m falling into danger.  Because of having diabetes so long, I can no longer feel when I’m going low, and having Rainie’s attention and monitoring makes me feel safer in the world, and during sleep.  My family doesn’t worry as much about me either.  My husband isn’t afraid to go on long trips because he knows that Rainie will help to keep me aware and safe.  And, even with all her life-saving responsibilities, Rainie knows just when to put her head in my lap when life with diabetes has gotten me down.

One of the reasons I’m excited about working with Early Alert Canines (EAC) is we train and place DADs with families with young diabetic children.  We call those dogs “Skilled Companions”.  I wish every family with a diabetic child could have a DAD.  Looking back on my own childhood, I wish I had had a blood sugar alert dog.  The dog would have been able to express what I, as an infant and child, could not.  The dog could have affirmed to my parents that my blood sugar was dropping, and that I was not cranky from teething pains, growth spurts, adolescence, etc.  And even though kids might get angry with their parents, a gentle nuzzle from a dog is usually returned in kind.

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As a nurse, and a person born with diabetes, I can only imagine what a dog could do for a parent’s peace of mind.  The dog would be another set of eyes and ears (and nose) to monitor the young child’s (or children’s) BS levels and alert the child’s parent when appropriate.  The DAD can help shoulder some of the parent’s responsibilities, while, hopefully, allying some of their fears.  One mother who just graduated from EAC with her son and their dog tearfully exclaimed, “Thank you!  I don’t feel so alone!”  Here is another story that shows why I’m passionate about DADs being placed in families with diabetic children: One dog has been placed in a home with three diabetic children under age 6.  The dog sleeps in the hallway between the children’s bedrooms, and alerts the mom when one of the kid’s blood sugar begins dropping rapidly, bringing her to the appropriate child.

I apologize for getting on my soapbox!   I wish I could tell you all the ways Rainie has changed my life and my relationship to my own diabetes.  She is my friend and constant companion, as well as being my perpetual blood sugar alert system.  She has truly saved my life at night and during one particular walk on the beach.  There are so many stories to tell – and Rainie and I have only been together for a little over two years.

I’d like to make myself available to anyone who has questions about life with a diabetic alert dog!  Please feel free to read my blog RainiAndMe.wordpress.com or contact me at mailto:HilarythePotter@gmail.com.

And, for those individuals interested in reading a blog about having a DAD while in college, please read my friend Amelia’s blog http://www.doggoestocollege.com

And one last story: Not long after Halloween, I was walking Rainie when a little boy named Jason came running with his cape flying behind him as he swung his light-saber from side to side.  He was yelling, “Hey! Is that a Ewok?”  I laughed and introduced him to my golden retriever named Rainie.  He wanted to know why she had a red jacket on.  As I explained to Jason and his mom that Rainie is a diabetic alert dog and that she notifies me when my blood sugar is dropping rapidly, the mom began to cry — Jason had just been released from the hospital after being found unconscious due to low blood sugar.  As we were talking, Jason looked up at me, with his arms around Rainie’s neck, and said, “If I had a dog like Rainie, she would keep me safe – just like my light-saber.”

What does it feel like?

Twin Sisters
Leslie and Rainie
Both Diabetic Alert Dogs

“What does diabetes feel like?” This is a crucial question when you’re caring for, or dealing with diabetes, and its life-impact. If you have your own experiences, please comment, so that more of an understanding can be shed.”

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Sometimes Rainie’s nose amazes me! I was driving past the kids’ playground to get to the part of the park we hike in every morning when Rainie uncurled from the floorboards, and frantically began smelling the wind coming through the open window. She was obviously in some distress, so I pulled into the parking lot, leashed her, and let her out. She immediately led me to the play area, and began alerting on a little girl who was running up the slide with a pink pump clipped to the back of her pants. Little pink-sweatered arms soon encircled Rainie, as I talked to “Emma’s” mom. Yes, her blood sugar was low (65), after having refused to eat breakfast. As Emma’s mom and I talked, she mused, “I wonder what it feels like for her when she goes high and low?”

This is a question I’m often asked, “What does it feel like?” It’s taken me a long time to figure out how to explain the answer . I’ll try to describe how it feels to me. (Please remember that I’m describing this as an adult diabetic. When I was young, I had the same feelings, but no words to describe them with.) And as I describe the differences between ‘low’ and ‘high’ blood sugar, please realize that a diabetic often fluctuates between the two states many times a day due to the nature of diabetes.

Low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, might be fun if it weren’t so scary and disorienting. Hypoglycemia is potentially life threatening because the brain’s only fuel-source is sugar, and with too little sugar, the brain cannot function properly. Therefore, most of the sensations of low blood sugar are brain-based. If my blood sugar (BS) is dropping slowly, the symptoms may be unnoticeable at first and slowly become stronger;  and if my BS is falling rapidly, I catch the symptoms as soon as I can. The first symptoms tend to be a general ‘fuzziness or blurriness’ in my thinking and perception. It is very easy to not even realize anything is wrong, and slowly become agitated and frustrated because ‘things just aren’t right’. I may also get very cranky or whiny.  One of  the most aggravating symptom of low blood sugar is frustration.  I like to describe it by saying, “On a scale of ‘one-to-ten’ my frustration tolerance is ‘a negative-three’.”  It gets in my way of dealing with every aspect of life, including my ability to make decisions that involve taking care of myself.  Everything becomes annoying – kids, traffic, choices, loved-ones (and others), work, my low blood sugar alert dog, etc.  I often figure out my blood sugar is falling because I’m so easily frustrated.  Living in this frustrated state is especially infuriating on those days when my body is extremely sensitive to my insulin, so I’m dealing with low-blood sugars for many hours at a time.  These periods of insulin sensitivity often happen for no reason I’m award of, and cannot be planned for or avoided.  When they do happen, it’s difficult to be patient while taking care of myself, and dealing with others.  I can only imagine what it is like for other people having to be around me! As my BS continues to drop, my thoughts and reflexes get slower and slower, and my coordination becomes poor.  It becomes more difficult to understand conversations and new ideas. I may also make relatively impulsive decisions. These are the times I’m glad I have my low blood sugar alert dog, Rainie. Her alerts keep me from doing things (like driving) when I’m still feeling ok, but could easily put myself, or others, in danger. (I am not drunk – although I may look that way.) As the blood sugar continues dropping, I become physically unstable, emotionally fragile, and easily overwhelmed. I’m dizzy, clumsy, disoriented, teary, sensitive to light, easily confused, and unable to make up my mind (which is really bad because it means I can’t even decide what I want to eat in order to correct the situation). Even though my lips and fingertips may be numb and my vision may be blurry from the low blood sugar, I get angry when people begin to question me and offer help – often becoming defiant. And I need help! And at the same time, I’m somehow unable to take care of myself. And I’m scared! If things were to continue, there is a good possibility I would become unconscious, go into ‘shock’, and, in the worst-case scenario, die.

The symptoms of high blood sugar, or hyperglycemia, are much more physical than low BS’s are. The first thing I notice is a deep headache. Then I get thirsty and agitated – very ‘squirmy’ and unable to concentrate and be still. I crave water to try to dilute my sugary/syrupy blood. I’ve noticed my tongue feels like it’s a dry cotton-ball sometimes. Then, my body begins to ache. Every part of me feels toxic, as if I’ve got the achiness of the flu. I don’t want to move because it feels ‘too hard’ – like walking through mud. And my brain feels that way too. Sometimes I just want to curl up in a dark, cool room and not move. If my BS gets high enough that I begin to ‘spill ketones’, I can get very nauseated and vomit. High ketones are poison to the brain. I’m also very sensitive to the fact that a few hours after high BS begins, my vision gets blurry because the sugar in the blood makes the lenses of the eyes swell.

High blood sugars can be very stubborn and not respond to extra insulin the way low blood sugars respond quickly to sugar. Often, with high BS, the body is resistant to the insulin because of adrenaline released as a protective mechanism by the liver. This can happen as a response to low blood sugar, exercise, excitement and all sorts of emotions like fright/fear, crying and laughter. And at other times, I am extremely sensitive to my insulin and am ‘low’ for hours on end and have a hard time bringing my BS up. Frustratingly, sometimes blood sugar control seems impossible, as if it’s influenced by the weather or color of socks I’m wearing – there seems to be no rhyme-nor-reason to it. Unfortunately, even though it may only take a few hours for the blood sugar to ‘get back under control’ with either insulin (for ‘highs’), or sugar (for ‘lows’), it takes many hours for the cells in the body (and the emotions) to get back into balance.

It’s easy to get wrapped up with the severity of diabetes. But it’s a part of life, just like joy, laughter and friends.

Life with diabetes is a true seesaw. High and low blood sugars happen. It’s part of living with the disease.  If you have diabetes, or know someone with diabetes, please be patient, and be present. We all have ‘one of those days’ occasionally; unfortunately, for someone living with diabetes, ‘those days’ happen almost every day.

Please help me explain what it feels like for you – whether you’ve got diabetes, or are part of the community that knows and supports someone with diabetes. ~h

The Trials of Being an Artist

Last weekend’s fundraiser for Early Alert Canines was incredibly successful!  I left the house with five large boxes full of my pottery, and the few pieces I cam home with didn’t even cover the bottom of one.  I couldn’t believe the attention my pottery (and Rainie) received!  The compliments were gratifying – I’d never done a big show like this.  Many people asked if I’d be back next weekend, or before Christmas.  I had to tell them I hoped to be back next year.  I knew that I was offering over a year’s worth of work, and there would be no way I could do it again any time soon.

As I was wrapping each piece to get ready for the show, I realized how unique each one was.  Some were thin, others heavy and clunky.  There were different shapes and heights and weights, even when I had tried to make a matched set.   Some people commented, and I told them that when I pick up a piece, I can tell what my blood sugar was doing while I was throwing/creating it.  When my glucose levels are changing rapidly (either up or down), my coordination and balance are affected.  When my blood sugar is high, I can’t control my strength very well; and when it is going low, I have poor depth perception, no frustration tolerance, and it’s best if I quit for the day.

When people make remarks like, “You know, you could have made this thinner/taller/bigger…(etc),” I sigh, and try to remember that, considering all I’m dealing with, I’m doing the best I can – always.  And often times, people will choose to buy the piece we’re talking about, because their knowing the ‘history’ behind it makes “even more special”.