In the middle of the night in a "typical" family home in Florida, a 12 year old girl, named Hunter, sleeps, while her German Shepherd, Diva, lies close by, snoozing on her own bed. All is well with the world...or is it? You see, several times during the night, Diva will get up and check Hunter's scent. If Diva doesn't like what she smells, she will alert Hunter's parents...starting with a nudge, escalating to turning circles or to jumping, whatever it takes to get her job done.
You see, Diva is a diabetes service dog, who has been trained to detect Hunter's blood sugar levels, because Hunter has type 1 diabetes, a dreadful disease that she has learned to live with since she was diagnosed at just 6 years old. Her daily regimen involves constant testing, insulin shots, even an insulin pump, a very restricted, although incredibly healthy, diet and a lot of help from her beautiful furry companion. And, Diva is amazing at what she does, usually detecting both lows and highs before any symptoms occur. She's even been known to bring Hunter or her parents a test kit in her mouth if that's what it takes to get someone's attention. That's a blessing because Hunter can get flu-like symptoms, including stomach aches and migraines when her blood sugar is high or headaches and the shakes when it's low.
Thanks to our work with the Diabetes Research Institute (DRI), our charity beneficiary for the "I"m Tired of Diabetes" bracelet, I was given the pleasure of interviewing Hunter and her mother, Donna, both of whom wear our bracelets, (Diva was there too!) about their struggle with Hunter's condition and Diva's role in her treatment. It completely reinforced how important it is to raise money as quickly as possible to find a cure. I had no idea how traumatic it can be and the work involved on the part of both the impacted child and his or her parents to keep the child safe and healthy, both physically and psychologically. Nor did I know that there are service dogs, like the incredible Diva, trained for this type of work.
When Hunter was first diagnosed, the family launched itself into what Donna describes as "Diabetes Academy." As she tells it, "You spend the first six months living on a computer and getting through a lot of sleepless nights. You have to get up every hour and a half in the middle of the night to test. We couldn't sleep and Hunter couldn't get any sleep," noting that Diva has changed that. We ended up going to a National Children with Diabetes conference and, for three days, we went to school to really learn how to handle the situation.
It was Donna, who came up with the idea of bringing a service dog into the family. Her rationale was that if police dogs could be trained to pick up the scent of explosives, then dogs should also be able to differentiate someone's breath and other scents, explaining that diabetics can have a fruity breath smell, a symptom of high blood sugar. "I wasn't sure if anything like that existed," she explains. After much research, Donna found that such diabetes service dogs did, in fact, exist in the form of Beverly Swartz and her company, All Purpose Canines, which specializes in placing services dogs with both diabetic and autistic children. The demand for these dogs has been so huge, in fact, that the company has had to stop accepting applications temporarily for diabetic service dogs because of the big wait list and the more rigorous training involved. "Beverly made it very clear that the training took a long time, that there was a lot of care involved with the dogs and that the dog and child had to be matched up if it was going to work," Donna said.
Nevertheless, they made the trip to South Dakota to meet Diva, who has changed their lives, and ironically, was born on the same day that Hunter was diagnosed. How's that for "kismet!" "Diva was very quick in catching on to my certain scents," Hunter said. "When I first saw her, immediately, she was alerting and running all over the place, trying to tell someone that I was 'high.'" Beverly added that Diva even alerted on the plane on the way back to Florida.
She cautions, however, that a service dog is not right for every family because it takes a lot of work and the right attitude towards the dog. "Out of hundreds of people, maybe three or four are good service dog candidates. The dog isn't a cure for diabetes. It is another tool," Beverly asserts. "As good as Diva is, she's not 100% and she may miss sometimes or give a false hit. But, she'd also rather do her job than eat." Hunter adds, "She may not be exactly accurate all the time, but she's pretty darn good...she really is."
"Hunter knows that if she fails to do her insulin, the dog is going to let her know," Donna says, "but the emotional support is also paramount in the relationship." She shared that if Hunter is having a really bad day, where she is experiencing highs or lows, Diva will lie next to her and they'll put on Neil Diamond music (a family favorite) while she waits for her blood sugar to level out so she starts to feel better.
"Diva is a friend. She's a companion. She's like a little sister to me, but in dog form," Hunter gushes. "No matter how I feel, she comes to me. She knows if I'm mad or something. If I'm sad or having a really bad day, I can just lay there with her and she calms me down and makes me feel better."
While I was on the phone with Hunter and Donna, Diva started alerting. Donna very calmly said to Hunter, "Diva wants to talk to you. She's alerting right now. She's having a fit." Doggies rule!
Difficult times have been known to bring communities together as people lean on one another for support. In this recession, there's no shortage of communities around the country that have rallied around a struggling neighbor, or reached out a helping hand to those around them. We know there are more stories like these and HuffPost wants to highlight them. If you read or hear about an act of kindness in your community, email us the story at firstname.lastname@example.org.
These vignettes are a much needed counterpoint to the doom and gloom surrounding the economy; let's help change the conversation -- we can't do it without you.