FLORENCE, Ala. - It was just more than two years ago that 12-year-old Olivia Saint got sick with what her parents, Beth and Patrick, thought was the flu.
Their discovery of what was wrong with Olivia has brought a four-legged addition to the family named Bella. Bella's presence helps teach others that the need for a service dog is not always obvious.
Olivia's nausea, aches, pains and tiredness came and went. The symptoms finally got so severe Olivia was taken to the emergency room where doctors performed a multitude of tests, including a check of her blood sugar. It was so dangerously high (1,180) that she was transported by ambulance to Children's Hospital in Birmingham.
Once there, Olivia went into a coma in the pediatric intensive care unit, where she spent several days in what her mother calls "a really touch-and-go situation."
The diagnosis: Type 1 diabetes, the most severe. Olivia's pancreas had ceased producing life-sustaining insulin for her body. Her weight dropped to 70 pounds in the hospital, but eventually she was well enough to check out.
Once back home, life was anything but normal. Her parents, who had researched the disease, learned how to care for Olivia but were still reeling from the diagnosis — there was no family history of diabetes.
"It was like in just a few weeks' time our lives went from everyday normal to anything but normal, and we worried every time she went to sleep at night that she'd have a seizure or even worse if her blood sugar went crazy," Beth Saint said. "We monitored her all through the night. We even moved a bed for her in our room."
Initially Olivia was taking seven to eight insulin shots a day.
That has changed to an insulin pump that assists in keeping her blood sugar regulated. But it's not a perfect science, and she still has sudden, sharp spikes and drops in blood sugar levels.
Constantly researching ways to most effectively deal with their daughter's diabetes, the Saints learned about a company that trains diabetic service dogs. The dog's acute sense of smell picks up the change in scent of the diabetic's body when sugar levels are off. A sweet smell like cotton candy means the levels are high. Low blood sugar is indicated by a sour smell.
Once the dog senses the change, he alerts the person by nudging with his nose, pawing and a variety of other anxious behaviors. The individual then knows to check blood sugar levels.
The dog also will alert other people — in this case Olivia's parents — if there's a problem.
Enter Bella, a 16-week-old Labrador retriever. Though still a puppy, Bella already has protective instincts.
She sleeps with Olivia and has alerted her on a couple of occasions during the night when her blood sugar dropped.
"A few times during the night she's sensed it and started pawing at me until I checked it and sure enough, it was low," Olivia said.
Diabetic service dogs typically live to be about 15 years old. The Saints say Bella came from a good gene pool. Both her parents are diabetic service dogs.
During the day, Bella stays with Beth and is getting acclimated to going out in public. She's been to a few restaurants with the family, where she is trained to go immediately under the table and lie still.
Olivia, who is a seventh-grader at Muscle Shoals Middle School, has the support of school nurses and others who know her condition and help her keep watch. She doesn't expect to need Bella at school, but if the day comes, Beth said she doesn't expect it to be a problem.
On a recent family outing with Bella at a home improvement store, Olivia was feeling fine, or so she thought.
Bella began nudging Olivia's purse, where she keeps her blood sugar meter.
Again, Bella was right. Olivia's blood sugar level was 300. Her normal range should be 80-180.
"She's an amazing animal, really," Beth said. "When she detects a problem, she is absolutely relentless. She gets a treat every time she does something good, so she's especially attentive to Olivia."
In addition to Bella's health alerts, Olivia is learning a valuable lesson in responsibility by taking care of Bella.
"She's still a puppy and she does things puppies do, but overall she is really good and behaves," Olivia said. "I have to always make sure I reward her when she does good. She expects it. She'll just stand there and wait. She's funny."
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