Ray Duckler: Shadowing a boy, making sure he’s okay
Lucien Gautreaux, 5, who has type 1 diabetes, watches cartoons at home with his mother Amanda Gautreaux, sister Mellie, and new service dog Shadow, a 4-month-old Labrador, in Barnstead on Wednesday December 11, 2013. Trainer Erin Gray was also with the family, helping train Shadow to detect when Lucien's blood glucose levels rise too high or fall too low.
(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)
Lucien Gautreaux, 5, reaches up to pet his service dog Shadow, held by dog trainer Erin Gray, while meeting with patrol officer David Scott at the Barnstead police station on Wednesday December 11, 2013. Gautreaux's family visited the Barnstead fire and police departments to let emergency responders know that the family will be living with a service dog,
(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)
Amanda Gautreaux got a call from the nurse at Barnstead Elementary School, telling her that Luc’s blood glucose level was way down, for the second time in less than a week, and she needed to get there, fast.
Gautreaux raced in her car to the school, cradled her 5-year-old son, still in his classroom, still listless, still sporting those haunting dark circles under his eyes, and fed him gummy fruit snacks and cake decorating icing, squirting it from a tube.
An hour later, Luc’s blood sugar had returned to normal. The nurse, the teachers and the mom had stopped crying. Then it hit Gautreaux, a 33-year-old mental health counselor:
“I knew I needed help,” she said this week, remembering her thoughts from that day, last spring.
Fast forward eight months, to Monday night, to a black Lab puppy named Shadow landing at the airport in Manchester with his trainer, Erin Gray.
They came from Virginia, from a farm where Labs are raised to detect, through smell, when a child’s glucose level has risen too high or dropped too low.
Gray is leaving in a couple of days, once Shadow, 4 months old, is settled
in his new home.
Shadow? He’s Luc’s, well, shadow, his schoolmate, his playmate, going here, going there, going everywhere with him.
He’ll be part of the family for a decade or longer, and he wasted no time working the other day, extending his paw to signal that Luc’s glucose reading wasn’t where it should be.
And, it turns out, Luc’s level was too high at that moment, probably from the Dunkin’ Munchkins he’d eaten that morning. An insulin injection brought it down.
“This is emotional for me, watching this,” Gautreaux said as the scene unfolded. “I’m not functioning on all cylinders right now. This is such a sense of relief. I want Luc to be able to run around with friends in the yard and get sweaty.”
Sweaty might mean a low reading, perhaps after exercise. Soda or something else with simple carbohydrates could be needed.
A cold or fever might mean a high reading. That’s when insulin, a hormone that helps the body turn sugar into energy, could be the solution.
That’s the way it’s been since Luc was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 18 months old, since he was rushed to the hospital with a blood glucose level of 986, considered through the roof.
“A miracle,” Gautreaux called it, the day Luc survived.
Since then, his levels have run the gamut, above and below the safe range of 70 to 220. His numbers may dart up or plummet, to unsafe places that no one can guess ahead of time.
“I’ll typically notice him sweating or combative, which is really hard to distinguish, and that’s happened all the way up since 20 months old,” Gautreaux said. “Is he being a child, or being a child with diabetes? It’s hard to parent the child because you’re trying to discipline a temper tantrum, but at the same time you’re trying to check first before you put him in a time-out to see if you have to give him candy. It’s a challenge.”
Which brings us back to that week last spring, before Shadow walked into this family’s lives.
The school nurse, panicking because sugary foods were having no effect on Luc’s reading, called Gautreaux, who raced to school to help, ending a week that Gautreaux would later say served as a “turning point.”
Once at school, Gautreaux pressed herself against a locked door and banged on the glass. She saw the nurse emerge with an orange container, signifying that the nurse believed glucagon – which raises low levels, its effect opposite that of insulin – was deemed necessary.
But glucagon oftentimes leads to side effects such as vomiting, so Gautreaux stuck with the icing and fruit snacks, and it worked.
It’s part of life now.
“I hate to say this about my child, but it’s come out of my mouth on several occasions since the diabetes diagnosis has come into our lives,” Gautreaux said. “That whole week he was running low, and it just makes you so nervous because you start to wonder, ‘Is my baby not going to wake up?’ or ‘How do I make sure this doesn’t happen?’ ”
In this case, Gautreaux called her mother, Lucinda Williams (not the singer). She’s Luc’s grandmother, and she’s wrestling with her own life-threatening challenges.
While Luc has been forced to swallow syrup from an eye dropper at 2 a.m. and rushed to the hospital in a flash, Williams has watched her mother die from breast cancer and has been diagnosed with the same disease herself.
She’s waiting for test results, due next week, at home in Delaware to see whether she’s cancer-free.
Still, from the moment her daughter reached out to her, Williams took control, contacting the service dog company and making the arrangements so Gautreaux could focus on her home life.
Then, with the waiting period finished and Shadow on his way, Williams hopped in her Hummer and drove here, a seven-hour ride, through frozen rain and rush-hour traffic, to help Luc with this new transition.
On Tuesday, she knelt on the carpet and sobbed after witnessing Shadow’s initial pawing, the one that proved to be trustworthy just a few hours after his arrival.
“I went through operations and radiation and chemotherapy, and I found that all I had to do was think about Lucien and what he goes through every day, and it just puts it all in perspective for me,” Williams said. “You just need to conjure up the image of a child who is so accepting of something that will forever change his life.
“And he’s just so excited about this dog.”
Shadow is so cute, it hurts. His ears flopped with each energetic stride, and he chewed on a squeaky cheeseburger toy.
However, as you sit there and watch Luc and Shadow lying together, you wonder how effective this system really is. Some, of course, don’t buy it.
Can Shadow really sense a high reading through a sweet smell, and a low reading from a metallic one?
Will he paw you or nose you or sit down or speak up to save the day? Will he change lives?
“My father is very skeptical,” Gautreaux said.
Gray, the trainer, has been teaching new dogs new tricks for more than a decade. She delivers the dogs and works with the family as needed.
“There are always going to be people who don’t believe,” Gray said. “If I ever had a child who was diabetic, I would have this dog in a heartbeat.”
Mellie, Luc’s 8-year-old sister, thinks the idea is great, although she was quick to point out later – after Shadow had done his duty outside and Mellie was asked to help clean it up – that Luc is not her dog.
“It’s really cool we have a puppy in the house,” Mellie said. “Especially one that can take care of my brother. That means a lot to me. We all agree life would be harder without Shadow.”
Shadow caught on fast. He mingled nicely with the family’s other dog and two cats. He played with his toys, comfortable in his new surroundings.
And he gravitated to the person who needed him most.
“Immediately, Shadow knew Luc was his human,” Gautreaux said. “He hasn’t taken his eyes off him since he got here.”