By April A. Morris  

APRIL 12, 2012 1:11 p.m. Comments (0)

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It affects millions of people in the United States, but it’s not heart disease, cancer or stroke. Diabetes is a chronic health threat to an estimated 26 million Americans. What’s more, an estimated 3 million people nationwide have type 1 diabetes – sometimes called juvenile diabetes – an autoimmune disease that experts once thought only appeared in children or adolescents. However, more than half of all diagnoses are adults, according to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, or JDRF.

In South Carolina, an estimated 36,400 people have type 1 diabetes, said Kathryn Johnson, development director of the Western Carolinas Chapter of JDRF. Type 1 diabetes, or T1D, affects the way the body can transform food into energy using insulin, a pancreas-produced hormone. People with T1D must either inject insulin or use an insulin pump to regulate their blood sugar. Treating diabetes with insulin does not protect the person from blindness, amputation, heart attack or stroke, all common long-term effects of diabetes.

For Simpsonville resident Missy Avant, the effect of diabetes is three-fold: her husband and two of her three children live with type 1 diabetes. Avant says she was in a fog after her 3-year-old daughter, Emma, was diagnosed during a routine checkup in 2006. This was after her husband, Michael, had been diagnosed at age 30.

“My diabetes knowledge came from ‘Steel Magnolias’ and Julia Roberts,” Avant said. She was already on a steep learning curve when her older daughter, Haley, was also diagnosed at age 9 in 2008. So far, Avant’s oldest, son Tate, 16, is symptom-free.

With three diabetic family members, Avant said, at first denial “was my favorite place to be.” She began to count carbohydrates and monitor the children’s activities, ensuring that their blood sugar remained within normal range. Now you can’t tell they have T1D, she said.

“Now it’s normal. At the time, I thought we would never get back to normal.”

Because Emma was diagnosed so young, monitoring her condition was a challenge. She couldn’t always communicate how she was feeling. In addition, she sleeps deeply and doesn’t know if her blood sugar drops in the night – something that can lead to seizures or coma, Avant said. So Avant checks on Emma every night. “I haven’t gone to bed before 3 a.m. in years because I’m checking on her.”

The worry and lack of sleep were a reality until a unique solution presented itself: a diabetic alert dog. For two years, Avant has trained Emmett, a British Labrador retriever, to sense with his keen nose when any family member’s blood sugar changes. To familiarize the dog with scents, she used gauze with family members’ saliva samples taken at different blood sugar levels.

During her research, Avant discovered very few organizations were training diabetic alert dogs, but did find another mom who trained a dog herself and who offered tips. The family acquired Emmett at seven weeks old, and he was already signaling at nine weeks.

He now sleeps with Emma. When he notices that a family member needs a blood sugar test, he picks up a fabric baton, called a bringsel, in his mouth or sits and bows. Using the bringsel utilizes Emmett’s natural retrieval instincts, Avant said.

Avant is currently training Emmett to indicate high blood sugar by using his favorite incentive: squeeze cheese in a can. “He will do anything for squeeze cheese,” said Avant. “He will braid your hair for some squeeze cheese.”

Emmett is not only an extra blood sugar sentry; he’s a welcome addition to the family. “We call him a pet with superpowers,” Avant said.

On April 14, the family will attend JDRF’s Black Tie and Baseball Diamonds fundraiser at Fluor Field in Greenville. Proceeds from the event benefit research for a cure, funded by the Western Carolinas Chapter of JDRF, which serves the entire Upstate.

After the gala, life will go back to active normality for the Avants: dance and riding horses for Haley and dance and basketball for Emma. “We don’t let diabetes define us,” their mother said. “We just bring lots of juice with us when we go.”

 

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