At the Chagrin Valley Hunter Jumper Classic this past month in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, I had the pleasure of meeting Elijah’s parents. They were there to raise awareness for Diabetic Alert Dogs. I listened to the story of their son Elijah, a promising athlete, diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes less than a year ago. I learned quite a bit about Diabetic Alert Dogs.
“Elijah is our 16-year-old son – a junior in high school, a competitive swimmer, and an aspiring video game designer who is just starting his college search. Elijah’s world was shattered last February when he was suddenly diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. Since then, he has struggled daily to control bouncing blood sugars and frequent lows and highs. Elijah dreams of swimming in college, but the dangers of going away to school and of swimming with diabetes are overwhelming.
“Nova is a Diabetic Alert Dog – a puppy still in training. Currently in Texas, he is learning how to be a good Service Dog who can alert Elijah to his high and low blood sugars. Like the other puppies in his litter, Nova has been imprinted since birth with the scent of low and high blood sugars. He will go everywhere with Elijah, even as they head off to college in a couple of years, and he could save Elijah’s life. He will be trained and ready to come home to Cleveland this summer on July 26th, Elijah’s birthday.
“The cost of a well-trained Diabetic Alert Dog is very high – not to mention the additional costs for his equipment, the flights to Texas to bring him home, vet bills, and other expenses related to the care and maintenance of a Service Dog. But the cost of keeping our child safe? Priceless! While a Service Dog will never be able to prevent Elijah’s lows and highs, Nova will be able to alert Elijah to the changes before they become life-threatening. He will sleep by his side and wake him at night when we can’t be there. He will ride in the car and stop him from driving if his sugars are getting low. He will sit by the pool and warn the coach if Elijah is in danger. He will be Elijah’s best friend, and bring a smile to a face that has been sad for a year. He will watch over him and be our eyes when Elijah is far away. He will help keep our child safe so he can grow up and move out into the world. What parent wouldn’t want that for their child?
“Elijah has been swimming since he was 7 years old, and dreams of getting recruited to swim in college. At 5’6” tall, he knows what it is like to be the underdog, but he has never let that stop him from achieving success in the pool. Now, that same spirit and fierce determination will help him continue to swim despite this awful disease. At the time that he was diagnosed, Elijah was a sophomore in high school about to reach the peak of his high school swim season. He was brought into the emergency room on a Wednesday afternoon, and the world as he knew it fell apart. Since then, Elijah’s life has been a whirlwind of trying to control his wild blood sugars while also attempting to swim and prepare for college.
“Type 1 Diabetes is an autoimmune disease. With diabetes, the pancreas stops producing insulin, the chemical that is responsible for processing the body’s blood sugar. Without insulin, blood sugars will spike out of control, ultimately causing coma and death. Blood sugars that are not well controlled can cause many serious long term health problems such as kidney disease, heart disease, blindness, limb amputations, and a myriad of other health problems. The body cannot process oxygen and calories safely while sugars are high, so it would be nearly impossible for an athlete to achieve success with sugars in a high range. Short-term symptoms of high blood sugar include head-aches, nausea, blurred vision and extreme fatigue. Imagine trying to study for a test when you feel like that!
“Type 1 Diabetes is treated with injections of insulin. It is very difficult to calculate exactly the right dose of insulin at any given time, and giving too much insulin is extremely dangerous – it can quickly cause life-threatening bouts of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) that can lead to confusion, seizures and death. Low blood sugars can come on very rapidly with little warning, and are particularly dangerous if the diabetic is sleeping, driving or swimming.
“Life with Type 1 Diabetes is difficult, and demands a non-stop rhythm of medical intervention. Days consist of a continuous blur of finger pricks (to test the blood sugar with a glucose meter), insulin shots, carbohydrate calculations, and juice boxes to correct lows. Elijah has to test more frequently than some because of swimming. It is not unusual for him to test 10-15 times in 1 day. Most diabetics experience unexpected bouts of high or low blood sugar, and some people cannot feel warning symptoms until it is too late. We often have to wake Elijah up in the middle of the night to check his blood sugar, and even with that, there are times when we lay in bed wondering if he is safe.
“Swimming with diabetes provides its own set of challenges. While any exercise can bring blood sugar down, the intensity of swim practice, along with the cold water, often causes the blood sugar to drop to dangerous levels. Elijah has to jump out of the pool and test his sugar frequently during practices, and often has to force himself to drink and eat while he’s trying to push his body through serious training. At the same time, stress or intense competition often causes blood sugars to spike ridiculously high, so right before an important race Elijah often faces sudden high blood sugars that are certain to interfere with his ability to compete well.
“As all of Elijah’s peers and their parents begin to make plans to look at colleges, all we can think is – ‘How are we going to be able to let our son go away to school?’ Who will keep him safe when he is away? How can we let him chase his dreams? Diabetic Alert Dogs, or DAD’s as they are called, can change a diabetic’s life. While they are relatively new in the world of Service Dogs, they have proven time and again that they can and will save their master’s life by alerting them to blood sugar changes sooner and more accurately than the glucose meter. These dogs can sniff out subtle changes in their person’s blood chemistry, even at a great distance, that are undetectable to humans.”
Nova is now home with Elijah and the two are happy as can be! Their future together begins!
For more information about DAD – Diabetic Alert Dogs, go to http://www.dreysalertdogs.com/
To make a donation to the fund set up for Elijah and Nova, go to