By: Kristin Wilson
“I just read 10 sentences, but what did I read? Why doesn’t it make sense to me? Is that the home phone ringing? What is happening around me?”
I have had type 1 diabetes for 34 years, and those were my thoughts during one of my many low blood sugars. I cannot tell when my blood sugar is dropping. It’s hypoglycemic unawareness.
About three years ago, I read about a company that trains dogs to detect low blood sugar, and I applied to the program. My house was checked first, and I had to fix two fence boards and remove some paint in the backyard.
Finally, my acceptance letter arrived!
I booked a hotel in Northern California for two weeks. I am a single mom, but I was lucky enough that my parents could care for my eight-year-old daughter while I was gone.
As the time to leave approached, I began to feel scared. I would be without my daughter for two weeks and going to classes from 9 am to 4 pm daily. I felt alone. I have been fighting diabetes for years and have the support of family and friends, but diabetes is all up to me. No one knows the minute-by-minute ordeal that I go through: Should I eat this? What is my blood sugar? Is it too hot outside, which will make my blood sugar drop? Am I ovulating, or is my period near? Should I worry about altitude change?
I started shopping for the items for a service dog—a kennel, special toys, food, toenail clippers, ear wipes, toothpaste, potty bags, bowls for food and water, and injury items. The bill totaled about $1400.
It was Sunday morning when I left home for the training. My mom came to take care of my child, my “punkin” (her nickname). I had never been without her for as long as two weeks. My car was packed. Kisses and pinky promises were exchanged.
Finally, I arrived at the hotel, my new home. It took four trips to get my clothes and dog items to my room.
On Monday, I woke up at 6 am. I showered and ate breakfast, but that only took until 7 am, and class didn’t start for two more hours. I was nervous. Off I went, back to my room. I turned on the TV, flipped though the newspaper, did the crossword puzzle, and checked the Internet. My mind was elsewhere.
I got to the training center at 8:20 am. Of course, I was the first to arrive. I hesitantly walked inside and saw a stuffed dog in the lobby. I continued through: an office on the left, sink, bathroom, another office with two desks, and then entered the training room.
There were numerous dog kennels and dog beds around the room. Slowly people started to arrive. There were a total of seven people who wanted placement of a service dog. These were the people I would share every day with for the next two weeks, Class started at 9 am and ended that first day at 3 pm. Due to nerves, anxiety, paying super-close attention, and writing everything down, I fell asleep that night at 6 pm.
I awoke early the next morning to finish my homework. Yes, we had reading and a test to complete each night. I had been too tired last night to read, so off I headed to a restaurant to re-read and re-check my homework. We had to get at least 90 percent on each homework assignment.
Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, we learned and practiced with the dogs. We learned how to walk a dog and give commands as the trainers watched us work with the different dogs. We had to trade dogs during the practice time to see which dog fit our mode of walking and personality.
Thursday afternoon, tensions were high. That was when we were going to be placed with a dog, but if it didn’t work out, we could go home with no dog. “God, please don’t let that be me,” I thought. I had primarily worked with two dogs: Newheart, a black lab, and Kolumbo, a golden lab.
I was the second person to be called to the middle of the room for placement. “Who would I get?” was my thought. When the trainer said, “Kolumbo has chosen you,” I cried and ran over to his kennel to get him out. “He is mine now. He likes me!” Tears continued down my face as the other students were placed with their dogs.
I told my punkin that she would be the first one to know which dog I got. I called my parents, then got her on the phone. I was crying. “Hi, punkin. It’s Mommy. We have a new person to add to our family! His name is Kolumbo. He is one year and three months old, a golden lab. I can’t wait to see you!”
Oh, relief! I was placed with a dog. But tonight, I had to take him to the hotel all by myself. I was worried, thinking, “Will he obey my commands? What if I lose him? What if he doesn’t get in my car?” I was informed he had to be with me 24/7, but what was I supposed to do with him when I took a shower or used the bathroom?
On Thursday night, I walked into the hotel with Kolumbo and was greeted by the staff, who were waiting to see who I had been placed with. I introduced Kolumbo to the staff, then informed them that they couldn’t pet him. There were unhappy faces all around, but the reason for no touching was to show that Kolumbo was to work for me and bond with me.
I went to my room and called for room service. Then I fed Kolumbo and took him outside to go to the bathroom. I have to give him the command to eat, or he will sit in front of his meal drooling. I also have to give him the command word to go to the bathroom. I was so nervous that I was going to do something wrong.
My daughter called me that night to say she was missing me and to ask if she could come visit me tomorrow. I told her I would be in classes every day until Sunday, my only day off for the two weeks. She said she didn’t care. She said that she wanted to swim in the swimming pool while I was in class. I think she was super excited to meet Kolumbo, though!
I was the only person who didn’t have a family member to go home to at night. On Friday morning, we had to talk about how the previous night was for us, so I informed the staff that my daughter and mom would be arriving sometime that day.
It was really hard to concentrate that morning, as I continued to look at the clock and wonder where they were. Finally, the trainer nodded at me and told me to turn around. They were here! I ran over to my daughter with tears exploding down my face. She jumped into my arms, then sat on my lap through the class and through lunch.
Friday night, back at the hotel, Kolumbo “alerted” me that my blood sugar was low. I jumped from the bed, tested my blood sugar, and gave him a treat. This was the first time my daughter and mom were allowed to touch him, as we were having a party because he did so well.
We went on a few outings during the two weeks. One was to a fast food restaurant, another to a grocery store, and another to the mall. I learned about how to massage Kolumbo (he has a service tattoo in each ear). I learned that he can smell 250,000 things and we humans only 10,000. I learned about CPR for a dog, the service laws, and how to get on an airplane. The only places I can’t take him are the zoo, concerts, and dog parks.
The following week, on Friday, was the final day of the class. We had to take a final, and I got only two questions wrong. Now it was on to the practical part of the test. We took Bay Area Regional Transit (BART), which is not my favorite thing to do up north. It was the second time we had taken BART, and the first time, I got motion sickness and threw up. I was hoping not to do that again. We rode the BART into the City, took a trolley, then a bus, and arrived at Pier 39. We had a few hours to eat, shop, and work with our dogs.
Of course, I had looked to see what stores were at Pier 39. Score–a purse store! (By the way, I collect purses and the first time we took BART, I bought a Brighton purse and a Kate Spade purse). The trainers knew instantly which store I was going to walk into first. Kolumbo and I ate lunch and visited a few other stores, all the while having the trainers watch us to see how we were doing.
After another motion-sickness-filled BART ride, we got back to the training center to say our goodbyes to the people I had spent the last 11 days with. They are family now. Hugs were passed around and promises to stay in touch.
On Saturday morning, I loaded all of my items and Kolumbo’s items in my car. It took three-and-a-half hours to get home to Fresno. The whole time I was driving, I was wondering, “Will he obey me? Will he like the house? Will he fit into my lifestyle? Will he like my daughter, parents, and two cats?”
I walked Kolumbo into the house and showed him around. He saw his toy box, the upstairs, and the backyard. The cats were not impressed with him.
Kolumbo was very popular at my work when I went back. When I was on the elevator, people would walk in, look down, and talk to him, not me. He had a bed and toys in my cubicle. There were times when I would turn around from my computer, and look, no Kolumbo. Up I would go, just listening for laughter. I would hear, “Kolumbo, oh, you surprised me. Did you bring your toys? What are you going to do today?” He loved visiting people, and the people loved his big eyes and soft ears. People would come to my cubicle just to talk with him.
Kolumbo alerts me to low blood sugar by pushing his head on my leg, not allowing me to pet him, backing up, and staring at me with dilated eyes. Once I realize what he is doing, I stand up and he runs over to where I keep my testing items. He gets a treat after I test, even if my blood sugar number is in the normal range. Then I treat myself too, or I will have a super low blood sugar reaction.
When I first got Kolumbo, I didn’t believe him when he alerted me. How could he know when I am getting low? I have had diabetes for more years than he has been alive! But I am now a solid believer. There were a few times that he alerted me and I gave him his treat, but forgot to treat my dropping blood sugar. He waited about 10 minutes, then alerted me again. And yes, he got another treat.
It has been one-and-a-half years since Kolumbo joined my life. I can’t imagine going to the bathroom, walking upstairs, taking a shower, or going to bed without him being right by my side. He follows me everywhere. My daughter loves him to pieces, and the two cats have warmed to him.
My daughter is my gift in life, and Kolumbo is my guardian angel that I can see, pet, and love daily.