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Pet with purpose: South River student brings home diabetic assist dog

Correspondent

Many children wish for a puppy for Christmas. For Julianna Scofield, a senior at South River High School, it was more than a wish — it was a need fulfilled this Christmas, when Koa, a diabetic alert dog, came to stay forever. It had been a long road to bring the two of them together.

Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in the spring of her freshman year, she exhibited classic symptoms: dry hands, dry eyes, blurry vision and fruity breath. She was nauseated and breathing heavier than normal. She became lethargic, even sleeping in class, something she had never done before.

She experienced extreme hunger and thirst, yet she lost 30 pounds in just a few weeks. She bought new shorts in May. By June, they were falling off.

The moment of recognition came after the evening she ate half of a large pizza and still wanted a large ice cream. When she weighed herself in the morning, she had lost seven pounds.

In conjunction with all of the other symptoms, she remembers thinking to herself, “I’m pretty sure that’s not normal!”

She and her mom, Stacey Scofield, were in the pediatrician’s office that afternoon, admitted to Children’s Hospital that night. Together they waited for the endocrinologist’s diagnosis.

The next day brought a crash course of information about what diabetes is and how to manage it, the importance of proper nutrition, how to check her blood glucose levels, calculate the amount of insulin needed, and how to give herself insulin shots.

The next year was all about learning to live with diabetes, and Julianna felt the anxiety common after diagnosis.

“Every minute of every day I’m thinking about diabetes — every choice impacts it. Even healthy foods have a lot of carbohydrates.”

In her junior year, Julianna began to feel more than the normal anxiety about the upcoming milestones of driving and going to college. She researched service dogs and statistics of college students who died in their sleep because their blood sugar dropped and no one was there to help them. She is a very heavy sleeper.

Case in point: One night an ambulance was called for her younger brother, Ethan, who has had a heart condition since he was a baby. The flashing lights, sirens, paramedics — all of the noise and commotion surrounding the presence of emergency personnel didn’t wake her.

“Julianna is a heavy, heavy sleeper. She never stirred; she had no idea that anything had happened,” Stacey Scofield said. “So while the statistics she presented aren’t staggering, they are concerning to us.”

The final straw was the night that Julianna’s glucose dropped to 20 and she couldn’t get the level back up (normal is 80-180). She called out, but her parents didn’t hear, and she couldn’t go to them.

“I was sleeping and I didn’t hear her,” Scofield said, with a heavy dose of mom-guilt. “That is our reality. If she is not treated, it could be fatal. We decided we were getting a dog.”

Julianna was ready for the conversation. She had thoroughly researched service dogs for diabetics and created a detailed spreadsheet to answer all of the questions she knew her parents would have.

She found Koa, a comfort retriever, on Instagram. Koa’s trainer, Camden Olson, is a senior at Princeton University. Training Koa was part of her senior project, and the first diabetic alert dog she has trained.

“At first, (we) thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding?’ ” Scofield said.

They followed up with research of their own. It was daunting. Organizations that work with dogs for blind people or wounded veterans are more established. They have proven track records, and many provide service dogs at no cost. Diabetic alert dogs are a new venture in service dogs, often bought sight unseen, and the reviews are mixed.

“Many people find they have bought a very expensive pet,” Scofield said.

The more research they did, the more they liked Olson’s open approach. She posted Koa’s behavior and task training as they worked. She and Julianna worked with Koa together frequently over the course of 11 months, despite the long drive between them. Koa stayed with Julianna while Olson was interning for Canine Companions for Independence in California last August.

Now Koa is home for good. He can smell high or low glucose levels, and alert Julianna, even if she is sleeping. He responds to the alarm on her glucose monitor, and if she doesn’t wake he can go for help. He goes with her everywhere, resting under her desk at school and riding in the car she now drives. Together, they will go off to college in the fall.

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Email south county community news and events to Vicki Petersen at aroundsouthcounty@gmail.com.

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