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Emergency landing avoided due to diabetic alert dog, John & Nikon

Updated: Sep 1, 2021

John Torma was on a 15-hour flight from Oslo to Oakland. He got settled in his seat and then fell asleep. The next thing he knew, he was in an ambulance on the way to a hospital. Flight attendants might have thought he was just sleeping if not for the presence of Nikon, his diabetic alert dog. He told them when he boarded that they wouldn’t even notice Nikon unless his blood sugar started dropping. Torma doesn’t have any memory of what happened, but at some point during the flight, his specially trained Golden Retriever kept trying to get his attention. When flight attendants noticed that he was unresponsive, they called ahead to have an ambulance waiting at the airport. Nikon’s alert likely saved Torma’s life. “If he hadn’t been there and I had just been in my seat, I don’t know if someone would have noticed I was low before it was too late,” Torma says. “They said, ‘You told us what he was there for, and then he was going nuts and you were not responsive.’” That was five and a half years ago, and Torma and Nikon, who recently celebrated his ninth birthday, are still a team. The two were paired in 2014 by Early Alert Canines after Nikon was found to be unsuited as a guide dog. Torma learned about the program when he was participating in a low-glucose suspend trial at Stanford University. “One of the research assistants on that study was one of the first teams created through Early Alert,” he says. “Based on my lifestyle and my sugars, she thought I’d be a good candidate.” Torma’s blood sugar levels typically ranged from 80 to 120 but trended toward 70s to 80s. She told me, “Look, when you go low, you’re already so close. It’s riskier. I think that having an alert 10 or 15 minutes before you go low like that would be really helpful for you.” He had always wanted a dog, and the idea of having one who could alert him to dangerous blood sugar levels was the incentive he needed to rearrange his life and commit to caring for a canine partner. When he first met Nikon, though, he wasn’t sure they were a match. Nearly a year after he applied to EAC for a dog and passed a home check, he was called in for orientation and to meet the four available dogs. To Torma, who has a calm personality, Nikon seemed to be the most high energy of the bunch. He thought to himself, “I really don’t think I can handle that dog.” But a few months later, when he went back for the intensive training required before finally being paired, it was Nikon who walked through the door as his new partner. Torma expressed his concerns. “He’s a 10 and I’m a two in terms of our energies,” he said, worried. The trainer reassured him. “We have to pick the best person for the dog, not the best dog for the person,” she said. “Your energy is going to help him calm down and really get to a nice, stable level.” She was right. Nikon still loves to play, and he has a lot of energy when he has an opportunity to release it, but when he’s on the job, he’s silent and attentive. “We’ve traveled on the plane a lot or we’ll go on buses,” Torma says. “Most people, when we get off, say ‘I didn’t even realize there was a dog on this plane.’” Besides saving his life—not just on that memorable flight but any time he alerts Torma to blood sugar ups and downs—Nikon has changed Torma’s lifestyle and employment. For one, he finds himself being an advocate not only for himself and his service dog, but by extension for all people with service dogs. One such instance was at the New York Public Library’s Rose Main Reading Room, a dazzlingly ornamented two-block space built in the Beaux Arts style of the Gilded Age. “It’s a beautiful room,” Torma says. “It’s absolutely gorgeous.” He walked in with Nikon and was stopped at the door to the reading room by a New York Police Department officer. She refused him entry, even after he explained that Nikon was a service dog. At first, Torma was stymied. Usually, it was the police he turned to when businesses tried to refuse access. For 15 to 20 minutes, they were at a standoff because she didn’t believe the dog was allowed. Finally, she called over her supervisor who asked one simple question: “Is that a service dog?” Torma replied in the affirmative, and the supervisor informed the officer that it was fine to let the two enter. Torma thought to himself, “You should know access law stuff. You should be the ally in this, not the antagonist.” Another instance occurred at his sister’s wedding in Indiana. She had booked an entire wing of the hotel for the ceremony, reception, and guest stays. When Torma arrived to check in, the manager said Nikon was not allowed. Torma explained the public access rights due a service dog. The manager didn’t believe the hotel was required to follow the federal law. He was finally persuaded after Torma pointed out the fines the manager would have to pay after Torma’s legal right to stay there with Nikon was established. “You can deny me access because you don't let anyone in past 10 p.m. or you're closed on Sundays or it's a private event and it's reserved, but you can't say, ‘You can't come in because of the dog,’” he says. Nikon also changed Torma’s career trajectory. When it comes to work, Torma is a jack of all trades. He has turned his hand to farming, sales, and, before Nikon came along, cooking. A commercial kitchen, though, is one of the few workplaces where service dogs such as Nikon aren’t allowed. While the Americans with Disabilities Act permits customers to bring service dogs into restaurants, it does not allow for cooks, line chefs, or other employees to have them in the kitchen or food storage areas. Torma learned of the restrictions during the application process and training. That led to his decision to transition into real estate when the opportunity to bring Nikon into his life came along. Nikon’s presence and charisma have also turned Torma into a “walking, talking billboard” for EAC and diabetic alert dogs. Nikon draws their attention with his good looks and great attitude, and more often than not, Torma finds himself describing the work his dog does. Just as he does with flight crews, he explains that Nikon smells blood sugar and alerts him to dangerous highs or lows. “They're always super-fascinated when they find out he can smell blood sugar,” he says. Invariably they know someone with diabetes who might be interested, and he tells them about EAC. The two have bonded in a way that Torma never dreamed possible when he first took on the excitable Nikon. The gregarious Golden has given him a different life, and it’s difficult for him to even remember the person he was prior to Nikon’s arrival. “I know there's a point down the road where I won't have Nikon. That's a world I can't even think about because he's always here. He's like another part of myself.”

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