A life-saving partner - In loving memory of EAC Kade.
In 1996, as a newlywed full of anticipation for the future, Nancy suddenly began to feel unwell. Not unlike many adults who are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, her initial symptoms led doctors to suspect type 2 diabetes, based on her high blood glucose levels and family history. After weeks of treatment based on the protocol for type 2 diabetes, Nancy’s blood glucose levels remained dangerously high, and within a month, her health rapidly declined. Nancy went from being an energetic mother of two children to laying in the intensive care unit fighting for her life. She was experiencing Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA), which is a serious complication of diabetes that can be life-threatening. DKA is most common among people with type 1 diabetes, although people with type 2 diabetes can also develop it too. DKA develops when your body doesn’t have enough insulin to allow blood sugar into your cells for use as energy. Instead, your liver breaks down fat for fuel, a process that produces acids called ketones. When too many ketones are produced too fast, they can build up to dangerous levels in your body. Sometimes DKA is the first sign of diabetes in people who haven’t yet been diagnosed, and in Nancy's case, this is exactly how the doctors were able to diagnose type 1 diabetes.
Like many newly diagnosed people with diabetes, Nancy spent months trying various insulin treatments, many of which caused dangerous side effects like rapidly dropping blood glucose levels. She discovered early on that despite treatment, Nancy’s blood glucose level would drop rapidly, often before she could sense it, which is referred to as Hypoglycemia Unawareness. A low blood glucose level triggers the release of epinephrine (adrenaline), the “fight-or-flight” hormone. Epinephrine is what can cause the symptoms of hypoglycemia such as a thumping heart, sweating, tingling, and anxiety. If blood sugar and glucose continues to drop, the brain does not get enough glucose and stops functioning as it should. This can lead to blurred vision, difficulty concentrating, confused thinking, slurred speech, numbness, and drowsiness. If blood glucose stays low for too long, starving the brain of glucose, it may lead to seizures, comas, and sometimes death.
Nancy found herself having daily conversations with her children about her condition. “As a mother of a 10 and 12-year-old, I was terrified that I would die before my children. They were curious and anxious. We talked openly about what was happening to me and about what to do if they found me passed out or unresponsive. Having this knowledge was empowering for us all,” says Nancy.
One evening, on her usual drive home from work, Nancy woke to find herself driving in the wrong direction on the freeway, miles away from her destination, and completely lost! She knew she had to do something. She didn’t yet know about Diabetic Alert Dogs, but she was determined to learn about how others coped with this disease. “I have always been a voracious reader,” shares Nancy, “and I consider myself a fighter; a woman determined!” It’s this quest for information and motivation that helped Nancy persevere.
Nearly 15 years after her diagnosis, in 2011, Nancy’s now daughter-in-law met Carol Edwards, the Executive Director at Early Alert Canines (EAC). “Around the time I first met Nancy, EAC was a newly formed nonprofit. I was out in the community, spreading the word,” recalls Carol. “I met Nancy’s daughter-in-law who shared her story with me. I gave her my card and encouraged her to reach out. I’m so glad she did,” says Carol. Nancy recalls, “I was hesitant to reach out to Carol because I had a disappointing experience when I first discovered Diabetic Alert Dogs. But I quickly felt that Carol and the EAC team listened to me, understood my concerns, and seemed confident they could help me.” Within 6 months, Nancy was placed with her partner EAC Kade and her life was forever changed…for the better!
“When I got to class, it seemed so surreal and I felt such a relief! We met several dogs, and none of us knew who our partner would be. I felt a connection with EAC Kade from the beginning, despite the fact that I wondered if I could keep up with his energy! I was delighted when Carol told me that he was indeed going to be placed with me. After EAC Kade was in my life, I no longer went so low that I would be unconscious. Before then, my husband would have to call an ambulance several times a year and it wasn’t uncommon for me to have Paramedics wake me up. Once EAC Kade came into my life, even while he was still in training, I would wake up to a fully grown Labrador sitting on my body and licking my face! This was the first of many surprise alerts. He was never more than 5 feet from me and I always described it as having a 2-year-old, because you do nothing alone, including bathing, getting a drink of water, and everything in between,” says Nancy.
Edwards recalls, “Nancy told us that she experienced Hypoglycemia Unawareness, particularly at night. She knew that the right dog for her would need to feel comfortable waking her at night. We immediately began specialized training with EAC Kade in which he was rewarded for finding the scent when hidden under a pillow. Nancy reinforced this behavior and he went on to be a fantastic night-time alerter!”
Diabetic Alert Dogs will often alert their partners while they are driving. It is carefully addressed during training and the dog is not encouraged to jump across a seat because it could be dangerous while someone is driving. However, if a dog can’t gain the attention of its partner, who might be experiencing hypoglycemia unawareness or coma-like symptoms, it will escalate its alert through verbal communication like cries or barks and, if necessary, nudging or sitting on their lap. Nancy recalls a time when this happened to her with EAC Kade. Nancy shares, “EAC Kade often alerted me while we drove. One time, in particular, I became dangerously hypoglycemic and when this happens, I have no memory of driving, and things like headlights and taillights become like a psychedelic experience. I drove several miles past my exit on a two-lane windy road and the ONLY thing I remember is EAC Kade with his head on my shoulder whining. Somehow I found a safe place to park, and while holding my phone, I had NO idea how to use it. When my mind started to clear, the dog was still right beside me, with his head on my shoulder crying, because I wasn't responding to him. I have had many other scary and unexpected drops and rises in my blood sugar levels, and EAC Kade has caught them all, even if it takes me a while to respond back to him!
The family recalls the numerous times that they would dine in public with EAC Kade. In keeping with his excellent skills as a Service Dog, the family would request a table that was safe and comfortable for him to kennel (lay down) underneath. “When it was time to leave, many times my husband would stand up and pull out his chair to allow the dog to exit, and we would often see and hear the gasps from other diners, who would comment that they had no idea a full-grown Labrador dog was there the whole time! People would ask about him and want to learn more. These were some of the best interactions we would have with the public, as an opportunity to educate them about Service Dogs in general and specifically about Diabetic Alert Dogs! We would let them know that even though we take his vest off when he’s not in public, he still works as my partner, and no matter what, he’s always a lovable Labrador underneath,” Nancy said. She is grateful that she always felt supported by her employer and colleagues as a type 1 diabetic and as someone with a Service Dog. “On occasions when it seemed like everyone in the office was experiencing a lot of stress and anxiety, EAC Kade had a way of making others feel better just by being there,” Nancy shares.
“Having been lucky enough to have had him in my life for the past ten years feels like a dream that I wish would never end. He loved going to work with me every day and enjoyed playing with his toys and in the water. He also loved his bed, which incidentally, had a better quality mattress than my own! He enjoyed our travels and flying in our Cessna airplane. He loved the fresh outdoor air and staying in hotels, too. He enjoyed being in nature, especially when we visited friends,” shares Nancy.
When asked what she wanted the community to know about Diabetic Alert Dogs, Nancy said, “They allow people with type 1 diabetes to live a life without debilitating worry and to lead a fully independent life. They allow children the hope to pursue their future and adults the opportunity to work and support their families. They alleviate the strain on caregivers, which improves everyone’s overall health!”
The EAC team is grateful to Nancy and her family for sharing their story and to EAC Kade for his life-long partnership. The team considers it a privilege to have trained EAC Kade and to have supported their success as a team for so many years.