Diabetic alert dog could save Auburn boy's life
Tonya Sweat will never forget the night six years ago when she sat in an In-N-Out Burger parking lot, crying as she held her screaming 9-year-old son, attempting to give him an insulin shot. He had that day been diagnosed with Type I diabetes, and injections were to become part of life for Joshua Sweat.
“Our whole world changed,” Tonya said. “Everything we do, everything we did. Life is very different.”
The Type I life
Since that night, Joshua estimates, he’s been pricked with a needle nearly 25,000 times. But the first one was the scariest. Tonya said her mom helped calm Joshua down, cradling him in her arms while Tonya administered the insulin.
Today, the 14-year-old Auburn resident is an injection expert, quickly calculating how much insulin he’ll need to keep his blood sugar levels stable, filling aneedle and jabbing it into his stomach. The vast majority of the time he wears an insulin pump, a removable device attached to his body that releases insulin levels controlled by Joshua. That means one big shot every three days instead of eight to 10 injections a day, although when football season rolls around the athlete goes back to injections, as it’s just not wise to wear the $7,000 piece of equipment out on the field.
“I test 8-10 times a day,” Joshua said, pricking his finger with a lancet and squeezing a drop of blood onto a test strip fed into a glucometer. A non-diabetic’s blood sugar will test right around 100; a diabetic’s levels fluctuate greatly, as the body doesn’t produce the insulin needed to break down sugar. In hypoglycemia, levels can dip into the teens, while highs can go up to 500, or anywhere in between.
“If you get too low or you get too high, you could die,” Joshua said matter-of-factly. Diabetes can also cause seizures, coma, loss of eyesight and circulation problems. That’s why it’s so important to keep blood sugar right around that 100 range. Doing that means Joshua carries responsibilities way beyond homework and football practice.
“I have to count the carbs I eat,” he explained. “I can’t go down to Taco Tree at lunch and order four quesadillas and a super burrito. I have to sit there and I have to test in front of my friends. I sometimes I have to take shots in front of my friends.”
He counts carbs to determine how much insulin he’ll need to process the food. Everything affects blood sugar, not just sweets. When he gets too high, he takes insulin. When he gets too low, he’ll eat some Skittles to bring it back up. Diabetes is an all-day battle.
“It’s like I’m a scientist, tearing apart this burrito, taking it down to practically chemical compounds, and that gets tough,” Joshua sad with a wry smile. “People look at me funny when I’m doing math in my head, trying to eat a quesadilla.”
‘Until there’s a cure, there’s a dog’
Tonya joined several online Type I forums when Joshua was diagnosed, and met someone who owned a diabetic alert dog. Intrigued, Tonya began researching the dogs, learning that they are trained to smell the scents given off by a diabetic whose blood sugar is dipping too low or climbing too high, signaling to the diabetic via a paw nudge, high five or bark. For young children, or if the patient is unresponsive, the dog will go get another member of the family to help. They’ll even retrieve testing kits and snacks when necessary.
The problem was that the Sweats, lifelong animal lovers, would be required to get rid of their other animals. They’d also have to travel to where the dog was being trained, adding the expense of airfare and hotels to the cost of the dog, which is not covered by medical insurance.
Then Tonya found Warren Retrievers, a nonprofit based out of Orange, Va., run by Dan Warren, a diabetic who was diagnosed at age 30. A former Marine who trained narcotics and explosives detection dogs, Warren started researching diabetic alert dogs. He found that they were most often trained for two or three years before going to their owner, and the scents they learned to detect where not their owner’s, but a chemical compound.
“We all have different severities, different variables, and of course we have different routines in life,” Warren said.
He started his organization with a new outlook – that dogs would be trained with their owners, and would become part of the family. Owners can keep their other pets, and other members of the family can feed and handle their new pup. Trainers travel to the families with a 3- to 4-month-old puppy who has already received some training, and the family works together to get the Labrador acclimated to its new owner. After they leave, trainers are in constant contact with the family and return every 90 days for two years to give new training.
Because a diabetic alert dog can smell blood sugar changes in some cases half an hour before a monitor can, they help diabetics cut back on the amount of testing they need to do. If blood sugar is dipping, the owner can eat a snack to maintain proper levels, instead of not realizing levels are going down until hypoglycemia has set in.
Put in layman’s terms, Warren said, “Take a teaspoon of sugar, put it into a glass of iced tea and swirl it around. You and I, as humans, would smell the sweetness of the iced tea. … By volume difference, the dog with detection capabilities is able to sense the same teaspoon of sugar in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.”
Dr. G. Prakasam, director of pediatric endocrinology at Sutter Medical Center, said the dogs are a slowly growing trend among his patients. Of the 1,300 children served by the Sacramento center, he said, about 10 now have diabetic alert dogs.
“Apart from being a companion, these dogs are able to identify low blood sugars even before the child gets to know about it,” Prakasam said. “It can prevent the dreadful complications from hypoglycemia.”
While alert dogs are just one of several tools available for youngsters suffering from diabetes, Prakasam said, it is amazing to see a dog in action. During an office visit with a 9-year-old patient, he said, the boy’s diabetic alert dog was napping on the floor, when all of a sudden he shot up on his hind legs and put his front paws on the child. Prakasam immediately tested his patient’s blood sugar, even though it had tested in the normal range just minutes before, and found that the child was, indeed, dipping to the hypoglycemic range.
“I saw it happen right in front of my eyes,” Prakasam said. “You read about this stuff, and you go by those kinds of descriptions, but when you actually see it happen, then you start believing it.”
It costs $40,000 to train one dog, Warren said, but thanks to grants and donations the cost to families is between $19,000 and $25,000. Families can pay $1,000 to be put on the reservation list, and then have three years to fundraise. The Sweats are on the list, and will receive their dog between September and November.
“It’s a major investment,” Tonya said. “However, if you break it down over the amount of years of the life of the animals, it’s cheaper than the complications that come on from fluctuating blood sugar levels.”
The dog will go to college with Joshua, and can tell him when he needs to adjust his blood sugar before he starts driving, which can be a very dangerous activity for a diabetic. The Lab even knows how to “call” 911 to deliver a pre-recorded message about Joshua’s condition in the case of an emergency where he is unresponsive to the dog’s signal.
“The dog will get up in the middle of the night and alert me, and have a huge potential to save my life,” Joshua said. “It blows me away what these dogs can do, and I am 100 percent dedicated to getting this dog.”
So far, Joshua has raised more than $6,000 toward the cause, including a donation from the pediatrician who diagnosed him, Dr. John Reeder of Grass Valley. On May 12, the Sweats will host a fundraiser at Loved Again Children’s Boutique in North Auburn, where all the proceeds from a 25-cent clothing sale will go toward buying a diabetic alert dog.
“He totally impressed me, being 14 and well-spoken, motivated – he just touched my heart,” said Loved Again owner Juliana Dent.
“He’s a go-getter,” she added. “He’s going out there and he won’t take no for an answer. He’s very persistent, determined, and he deserves this.”
Tonya said the community has been very supportive of Joshua’s efforts, including Auburn Printmasters, who donated all the printing for flyers.
Tonya’s fiancé, Thomas Martin, and his father, John Martin, will give rides in a NASCAR vehicle starting at $10 donations. Thomas is a NASCAR driver, and over the last year and a half John has been making a Sprint Cup Series car street-legal. It was JJ Yeley’s No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet, and Joshua described it as “bizarre cool.”
Joshua said he’s excited to meet his new dog, and to see the major impact it’s going to have on his life as a diabetic.
“This dog will mean so much to me – to be able to know that the dog is there for me, it’s my guardian angel,” he said. “I’m not taking my mom to college, so the dog is the next best thing.”
Reach Krissi Khokhobashvili at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joshua Sweat Fundraiser
What: Popcorn and hot dogs for sale; racecar rides; 25-cent clothing sale; bounce house; jewelry and wristbands for sale; Auburn 20-30 Club has agreed to give $5 of all Brewfest tickets sold at the event to the cause. 101.9 The Wolf radio will be at the event from 9-11 a.m.
When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, May 12
Where: Loved Again Children’s Boutique, 4076 Grass Valley Highway, Auburn
Info: (530) 913-7520
How you can help
Those who would like to donate to Joshua Sweat’s efforts may do so at www.guardianangelservicedogs.org. A follow-up email from owner Dan Warren will confirm the donation and ask which family to apply it toward. Personal and company checks may also be made payable to Guardian Angel Service Dogs, Inc., P.O. Box 910, Orange, VA 22960. Specify family in the memo. For information, or to donate over the phone, call (540) 543-2307. Follow Joshua’s efforts at www.facebook.com/joshsjourney.