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HealthBeat

Elle Shaheen counts on Coach, medic alert dog, to help her control her diabetes

  • From left: Stefany Shaheen, her daughter Elle Shaheen, and Coach walk in downtown Portsmouth on Wednesday, July 31, 2013. Coach is a medic alert dog trained to sense Elle's abnormal blood sugar levels. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

    From left: Stefany Shaheen, her daughter Elle Shaheen, and Coach walk in downtown Portsmouth on Wednesday, July 31, 2013. Coach is a medic alert dog trained to sense Elle's abnormal blood sugar levels.

    (TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

  • Coach, a yellow labrador retriever, is a medic alert dog that is trained to sense Elle Shaheen's abnormal blood sugar levels. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

    Coach, a yellow labrador retriever, is a medic alert dog that is trained to sense Elle Shaheen's abnormal blood sugar levels.

    (TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

  • From left: Stefany Shaheen, her daughter Elle Shaheen, and Coach walk in downtown Portsmouth on Wednesday, July 31, 2013. Coach is a medic alert dog trained to sense Elle's abnormal blood sugar levels. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)
  • Coach, a yellow labrador retriever, is a medic alert dog that is trained to sense Elle Shaheen's abnormal blood sugar levels. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

Coach started rolling over and wriggling, snorting and nosing at the grass with his paws flapping in the summer evening air.

He could have been any dog enjoying his favorite park, sniffing who had been there since his last visit. But Coach isn’t any dog, and when Stefany Shaheen noticed his antsy behavior, she became concerned.

Coach is a medic alert dog, and he was trying to tell Shaheen and her 13-year-old daughter, Elle, that Elle’s blood sugar was getting dangerously low.

Coach is trained to alert Elle – by nudging her, circling around her legs or, like at the park, wriggling around for attention – when her blood sugar is lower than 80 or higher than 200 milligrams per deciliter. That day at the park, Elle’s blood sugar was 69.

She downed a snack, Coach got a treat for catching the aberration, and he settled back down at her feet. Music began playing in another part of the city and his ears hardly twitched. Other dogs and their owners walked by and he didn’t even raise his nose to sniff at them.

“That’s what he’s usually like,” Elle said. “He’s a very calm dog, so you can tell when he’s going crazy and something is wrong. This morning, he was jumping on my bed, licking my face, and I was 246.”

“He’s very much a pack animal, and he knows he has a job within the pack. When his job is done, he can relax,” her mom said. “He’s almost like an insurance policy.”

Elle has been living with Type 1 diabetes since she was 8. It means her body doesn’t produce the right amount of insulin, a hormone that turns sugar into energy. When her blood sugar levels are high, Elle needs to take a dose of synthetic insulin; when it’s too low, she needs to eat something.

If her blood sugar stays too high for too long, it can cause problems over the long term, affecting her kidneys and other internal organs, and potentially leading to amputations or blindness. If it gets too low, she can have a seizure; she had one on the first anniversary of her diagnosis. Her parents were there and were able to intervene, but the situation could have been fatal.

So now, Coach goes everywhere with Elle: to school, to dance class and to camp all summer, where she sang show tunes and Coach sat dutifully by her side.

Elle and her mom say they were skeptical of whether Coach would be effective for her, even after hearing stories from other families at the Children’s Congress in Washington, D.C., last fall. But by March, the family decided to try.

The first night they met him, Elle and her dad settled in for the night at the hotel. Coach was staying with them to help begin their pack bonding.

They would spend the next several days working with a trainer to develop a common language for Coach to use to signal to Elle when her sugar levels changed.

In the middle of the night, Coach detected that Elle’s blood sugar had dipped into the 70s. He went right to work.

He licked Elle’s hand, and then nudged her sleeping head. When that didn’t work, he pushed a backpack off a table to make a loud thud. She woke up, tested and treated herself.

How does he know?

Coach was raised in Kansas specifically to be a medic alert dog. Such dogs are trained to detect specific scents and changes in scent and behavior that signal a drop or spike in blood sugar levels.

Dogs 4 Diabetics Inc., a California nonprofit that trains medic alert dogs like Coach, says on its website that the change in scent – on a diabetic’s skin and breath – happens 15 to 30 minutes earlier than the changes glucose meters can detect. Labrador Retrievers have more than 200 million scent receptors in their noses, and can distinguish scent molecules 100 times more precisely than manufactured scent technology.

Managing her diabetes has gotten harder for Elle this year. As she grows in spurts and goes through puberty, she needs to adjust her doses of insulin.

But the lab results after the first month of Coach’s tenure indicated her best blood sugar management in 18 months, Shaheen said.

Elle still tests her blood sugar regularly. In fact, Shaheen said they may test more frequently since bringing Coach home – as often as 12 times a day – because he alerts her to highs or lows she may not have been aware of before.

Shaheen writes about the family’s work with Coach on a blog, and the family advocates for medic alert dog awareness. They’ve heard from people who saw or read about their work with Coach and are now waiting to receive their own medic alert dogs.

As much as she loves Coach (when he’s being very well behaved she calls him “Coachie”), Elle doesn’t want to have a medic alert dog for the rest of her life.

The family is optimistic that a cure for Type 1 diabetes is on its way, and she’ll be able to live as an adult independent of testing her blood and carrying insulin doses.

Medic alert dogs are usually able to work until they are 10 years old, and Coach is already 2.

So that means there’s eight years to find a cure, Elle said.

But if the cure comes sooner, she’s okay with that, too.

“I’d definitely keep him around as a pet, when there’s a cure,” Elle said.

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or
spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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