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Watchdog monitors diabetic’s sugar

Lisa Sprosty attended this year’s Urbanna Oyster Festival with her “hero” Harrigan. November was National Diabetes Awareness Month. (Photo by Tom Chillemi)

by Tom Chillemi

The restfulness of sleep escaped Lisa Sprosty, who has Type I diabetes. The memory of waking up in the dark of night with her blood sugar so low that she was too weak to walk, made her afraid to close her eyes.

Being asleep and waking with an extreme low blood sugar reading of 29 was the scariest thing she ever experienced, said Sprosty. “At this number, most people slip into seizures or unconsciousness.”

When she awoke in this condition, she was not fully alert. “When you wake up in a low you are not even sure if you are awake or dreaming.”

Sprosty knew she had to get something to eat but she was too weak to walk. “I actually crawled out of bed and down the steps to the kitchen,” she recalled. “I was able to get juice and I remember sitting down and thinking, ‘I have juice, lots of it, so even if I pass out now my sugar will go up and I won’t die.’ That’s a feeling you never forget.”

From that night on she worried about going to bed. “On some nights I would eat things to make my sugar go a little high because I was so afraid of not waking up the next time my sugar went extremely low.”

A new day
The feeling of being afraid to go to sleep started to go away last summer when Sprosty got a Diabetic Alert Dog named “Harrigan,” who has the amazing ability to smell subtle chemical changes when Sprosty’s blood sugar is running out of the normal range. He “alerts” her 30 minutes before a pending “episode,” giving her time to take steps to avoid potentially dangerous situations. Harrigan alerts Sprosty by giving her a paw, and Sprosty checks her blood sugar and makes the needed adjustments.

This faithful servant will even wake her in the night if there is a problem with her blood sugar. Harrigan can even detect a blood sugar problem when he’s outside in the yard and Sprosty is inside her Richmond home.

Harrigan goes everywhere with Sprosty, and they came to this year’s Urbanna Oyster Festival. During the festival, Harrigan alerted Sprosty to a change in her blood sugar.

Training Harrigan to detect the low sugar signs began when he was only 7 weeks old, and Sprosty got him at 15 weeks.

Diabetic Alert Dogs such as Harrigan are trained to smell the chemical body changes that occur as insulin levels increase or drop. When a diabetic is experiencing a high or low, their body is releasing chemicals that change their typical scent, which alerts the dog that something is wrong.

Now 7 months old, Harrigan’s uncanny sensitivity has helped Sprosty recognize signs that her blood sugar has changed.

Before she got Harrigan, Sprosty had blood sugar episodes twice a week. In the first 10 weeks she had Harrigan, Sprosty had only two serious blood sugar lows.

Previously, Sprosty had worn a continuous glucose monitor that checked her blood sugar every five minutes. That device could detect lows, but only about 20 minutes after the episode had begun, and readings could be off by 15 points. “It was not very helpful for preventing lows, only telling you when they occurred,” she said. “Harrigan is about an hour ahead of the device.”

More Accurate
Harrigan is extremely sensitive to sugar changes. Harrigan once alerted her to a low, but when she checked her blood, her numbers were fine. “Knowing that he sensed something, I set my alarm and checked again 10 minutes later,” she said. “In that short time, my sugar had dropped over 30 points.”

Symptoms of a high or low can sometimes linger for hours even after sugar is back to a normal range. “This is why good control and prevention are key,” she said. “Unfortunately there are so many variables even an extremely diligent person has difficulty.”

Before Harrigan came into her life, Sprosty was limited in what she could do. She quit playing soccer because extremes were so rough. “I was constantly afraid to do almost anything,” she explained. “I felt like I had to always have someone around just in case.”

She was not aware of the symptoms of high or low blood sugar. “I did not feel changes in blood sugar until they reached really low levels in the 50s. Since Harrigan alerts me to lows in the 70s, I rarely drop so low and have started to gain sensitivity to the changes. He does a great job at alerting and keeping me safe, but even more importantly, he has given me back my freedom and security.” 

A close call
A blood sugar episode while driving really frightened her. Sprosty always checks her blood sugar before starting the car. On one occasion, she was in a good range at 156. Then, in the 25 minutes she was in the car, her sugar dropped to 65. “It scared me because I knew I could have caused an accident.”

Sprosty is a medical trade-show manager. Work was extremely difficult because her blood sugar would drop during meetings or events or while she was with customers and she would have to step out. “My co-workers are very supportive, but it was still limiting,” she said.

Another time she was shopping and had an extreme sugar low. She sat at a table outside the cafe and frantically searched her purse for a glucose drink. She pulled out everything, including her wallet. “I was obviously very confused and got up and walked away with everything still at the table.” When she came back a few minutes later, her wallet was no longer there. “I did not lose much as far as money but it was a huge hassle to have to cancel and replace everything including my license.”

Since she’s had Harrigan the fear of going to sleep has almost gone away, and she has her freedom. “I even went camping a few weeks ago and had my own tent with Harrigan, of course.”

Harrigan goes everywhere with Sprosty. “This little guy really is my hero!”

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posted 12.05.2013

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