Diabetics and their dogs want to change state law

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  • Coach takes a nap during the hearing at the Health, Human Service and Eldery Affairs committee on Tuesday, January 18, 2022. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Coach gets his ears scratch from owner Elle Shaheen as her mother, Stefany Shaheen speaks to the Health, Human Service and Eldery Affairs committee on Tuesday, January 18, 2022. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Sawyer (center) and Saco get some treats outside of the committee room before the hearing on Tuesday, January 18, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Coach gets a head scratch from owner Elle Shaheen as her mother, Stefany Shaheen speaks to the Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs committee on Tuesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Saco sits on the floor during the hearing at the Health, Human Service and Eldery Affairs committee on Tuesday, January 18, 2022. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Coach gets a treat from Stefany Shaheen before she speaks to the Health, Human Service and Eldery Affairs committee on Tuesday, January 18, 2022. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 1/19/2022 5:48:10 PM

Stefany Shaheen’s skepticism disappeared late one night eight years ago, following a gentle nudge to her chest by a dog named Coach.

At first, Shaheen figured the Golden Retriever, new to the family, needed to go outside. Or perhaps he was hungry.

Groggy, Shaheen quickly snapped to attention, realizing that the service dog was merely doing his job, sensing that Shaheen’s daughter’s blood sugar level was dangerously low.

Coach was correct, winning Shaheen over, convincing her that her daughter Elle could have a chance at an easier life with Type 1 diabetes, a serious and sometimes deadly disease.

The Shaheens and others testified this week at the Legislative Office Building, explaining to the Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee that diabetes should be added to the state statute that defines Service Animals and lists their accepted job descriptions. Coach changed lives.

“The difference has been extraordinary,” Shaheen, the senior U.S. Senator’s daughter, told the panel. “I was very cynical about whether these dogs could actually work. I went into her room and her blood sugar was very low and I didn’t know. She was sound asleep.”

The bill is a no-brainer, supporters of the addition said. Diabetes is misunderstood, Types 1 and 2 are vastly different in their effect on life. So misunderstood, in fact, that Stacey Patterson Gagnon of Pembroke, who has Type 1, told the committee that she’s run into obstacles at a pair of jobs.

They questioned why Gagnon needed a service dog. For diabetes? Does someone with Type 1 really need that much help?

When she pushed the issue, explaining the vital role her Cardigan Corgi, Sawyer, played in her life, Gagnon said she was required to show a note from her doctor, another from the Sawyer’s trainer.

She underwent an intestinal parasite test and had to disclose her entire health history. Then Sawyer was welcomed in to work. Sort of.

“I brought him to work and it was like ‘We found dog hair in the bathroom,’ ” said Gagnon. “I left for another practice and it was the same situation, they wanted my entire health history.”

Later, in the hallway outside Rooms 210-211, Gagnon said, about 10 percent of diabetics, suffer from Type 1, “And people put diabetes into one category. They’re ignorant about Type 1.”

That was a huge talking point at the LOB, that Type 2 is easier to manage than 1, with proper diet and exercise.

With Type 1, your body’s natural ability to produce insulin is compromised as the immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Blood sugar levels rise and fall to dangerous concentrations and must be monitored, throughout the day, every day, forever.

Seizures, blindness, even death can occur. Enter Coach, the golden, and Sawyer and Saco, both Cardigan Corgis.

They’re the heroes in this tale, the strong but silent type, lying on the floor near their owners’ feet, waiting their turn to approach the microphone.

The Shaheens, Gagnon and her wife, Katelyn Gagnon, told the committee that service dogs, through their sense of smell, are more adept at alerting someone that danger is near. What’s needed quickly, glucose? Insulin?

As for that technological stuff, those monitors and beeps and wires that are used as a warning system, well, those who testified said they don’t work all the time. And sometimes diabetics don’t wake to an electronic alert, so familiar are they with those types of noises for so long.

“The problem is that technology is imperfect,” Katelyn Gagnon said from the microphone, Saco resting at her feet. “It’s often wrong or too slow to react to (Patterson-Gagnon’s) rapidly dropping blood sugars. After years of worrying that her glucose levels were dropping when she was alone, it was a relief to discover that there was a solution.”

That would be a dog, trained carefully, specifically to smell too-high or too-low blood sugar levels, correct 85 percent of the time, Patterson Gagnon said.

“When I am dropping,” she said, Saco “gets up and pushes me.”

There are skeptics, of course, people who say this is more about making money than helping diabetics.

Service dogs can cost $20,000 apiece, up to $40,000, said Mary Finlayson, who runs Granite State Service Dogs. Other groups are nonprofit and host fundraisers.

Finlayson says she charges $8,000 per dog, with payment plans available. She began working with Saywer when he was a puppy, just six months old. Finlayson knew early that he had a great nose.

He paired Sawyer with Patterson Gagnon, the start of a two-year program, building a relationship, before Sawyer moved to his new home. In a sense, lifelong and dear friends were on their way.

“There are stories I hear,” Finlayson said. “They say they did not hear the alarms go off and they were fast asleep and the dog jumped on me and woke me up.”

It’s a system that’s no longer the backup plan, an insurance policy, or a second opinion. The dogs who made the trip this week to the LOB are the doctors, the primary life-saving pieces of equipment.

That equates to trust. Elle and her mother trust Coach. Enough for Elle to leave home, attend Harvard, her only roommate being Coach. Enough for Stefany Shaheen to feel calm about Elle’s move to New York City, where she’s acting, singing and dancing, hoping one day to reach Broadway.

Elle came home to the Granite State specifically to testify, to ask why the statute on the books – defining a service animal as a dog “That performs tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical disability” – doesn’t seem to sympathize with diabetics.

Couch has meant so much, going back to Elle’s school days, when he would circle her desk when something was wrong.

“Coach has been with me since I was 13 years old,” Elle told House Members. “He’s been with me for some of the most formative years in my life, through high school and through all of college. I know for me and my mom, he’s helped me navigate living on my own for the first time.”

She continued: “I could be okay without my mom or my other family members being there. (Coach) has been a literal lifesaver, more than once.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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