With the weather cooling down, it's the perfect time to curl up with good book as you keep you warm indoors -- especially if that book involves puppy love, which so many of us find heart-warming.
Now there's a diabetes book that fits the bill perfectly: the new memoir Elle & Coach: Diabetes, the Fight for My Daughter's Life, and the Dog Who Changed Everything. It's a touching emotional story that really hit home, even though I've never had a diabetes alert dog myself.
The book is written by D-Mom Stefany Shaheen in New Hampshire, a vocal diabetes advocate with JDRF and Joslin Diabetes Center. She also happens to be the daughter of U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who's championed diabetes issues in Congress.
For the latter reason, most likely, we've seen a bevvy of mainstream media reviews on this book since it was released Aug. 25, from the likes of People magazine and Huffington Post. There's even an endorsement from Michael J. Fox, included on the book's front cover. Pretty unusual for a diabetes book that tells such a personal story!
This 228-pager chronicles the Shaheen family's D-story after the diagnosis of their then 8-year-old daughter Elle during a family vacation over the Holiday season of 2007. What makes the book different is that the star of this story isn't just Elle (pronounced "Ellie") Shaheen, now a teenager, but their adorable canine named Coach, a beautiful yellow lab who's trained to be a diabetic alert dog (DAD).
I can understand the mainstream appeal, because Elle & Coach just tells a darn good story. And being a huge dog lover myself, I found the theme and information about service dogs irresistible. I also liked how each chapter starts with a brief quote from a journal entry by Elle, written at different times in her life growing up diabetic.
A Family Learns About Type 1 Diabetes
The first few chapters outline Elle's diagnosis, their early days in getting used to this new nornal, and how finding Coach was such a positive life change for them. Elle wasn't the first in the family to get type 1 diabetes, as her dad's younger brother Trent had been diagnosed in his 20s.
Elle is described as an extrovert and theater performer, and someone who's already following in her family's footsteps of becoming an advocate for herself and others.
But like most of us, the family didn't know much about type 1 before Elle's diagnosis. I found myself angry at their initial pediatrician, who refused to do a urinalysis to rule out diabetes, even though Stefany insisted. He finally complied "out of kindness" alone, and that's when they discovered the T1D-related high blood sugars.
The diagnosis and adjustment portion, which takes up a full half of the book, is pretty standard stuff for anyone in the Diabetes Community who's been through this -- injections, food vs. blood sugars, highs and lows, hope for new tech and research possibilities, and that ever-nagging uncertainty about the future.
But Stefany is a captivating writer, and I found myself pulled in by the words even if it wasn't a particularly exciting recap of what they experienced. I did enjoy the anecdote about their first Halloween, when D-parents Stefany and Craig decided to put out apples instead of candy, mortifying their own kids and leading to neighborhood teenagers smashing the apples on the front step. Luckily, they had a sense of humor about it.
But then the chapter titled "Darkness" begins and book takes a turn as we head into the Coach part of the story.
My heart sunk when reading about Elle collapsing in the kitchen early one morning, in front of her dad who was frantically asking if she was OK. Little Elle was not responsive, and thanks to the overly-complicated mix-and-inject process of using an emergency glucagon kit, her parents gave up on that fast and called the paramedics.
Even here, Stefany weaves in humor, cheekily explaining how the paramedic transporting her to the hospital post-seizure recognized her name from a recent school play she'd starred in. That aside made me chuckle, even as I was wiping away tears brought on by the seizure story.
A Diabetes Dog Named Coach
With the yellow lab's face plastered all over the front and back of the book, you'd think Coach would have made an appearance earlier. But, not so. He comes in late in the game. I actually liked how Stefany set the stage and helped her readers understand her skepticism about DADs early on.
After all, there isn't a lot of quantitative research about the effectiveness of these dogs, as pointed out by Aaron Kowalski, the JDRF's Chief Mission Officer & VP of Research, in his brief but glowing review of the book. (See also: our video interview with Dr. Dana Hardin, who's pioneered research on diabetes alert dogs.)
Stefany relates that while co-chairing the 2011 JDRF Children's Congress, she was reviewing applications from people who wanted to be part of that biannual event, and noticed that many asked to bring their service dogs along. About the same time, she saw a little girl in the U.S. Senate committee room sitting with her service dog, which was well-behaved and could obviously sense blood sugar changes, Stefany writes. "This dog impressed me." She immediately she went home and began researching opportunities for her own family to get a medial service dog.
Stefany talks a lot about the year-plus process they had to go through to get their dog, without knowing what type of dog or any other details. They eventually obtained Coach through a Kansas-based organization called CARES (Canine Assistance Rehabilitation Education & Services), an accredited and well-respected DAD trainer organization.
Oh, and Coach's name? No spoilers here. Let's just say you'll be moved by the touching tale behind the dog's name.
And if you're the sentimental type, you'll really enjoy some of the terms sprinkled throughout the latter half of the book, including "Couch Knew" and "miracle," and all the print and photos devoted to describing how great Coach has been in the Shaheens' lives.
For me a favorite part was when Stefany describes getting up for one of the first night-time glucose checks after Coach came into their lives:
"When I went into Elle's bedroom for my usual 1 a.m. check on her first three nights home, and I swear that dog just lay there on her bed and stared at me like I was a crazy woman. His eyes seemed to say, 'What are you doing here? She's fine. Go back to bed!'"
Not everything's peachy, though. My blood boiled when reading the account of how Elle's beloved summer theater camp discriminated against Coach and her type 1 lifestyle in general, and that led to the family not wanting to return there. Those are very real issues for PWDs and service dog owners, and I appreciate that this was included.
And Stefany does take the high road of stating that their family's story is indeed anecdotal, and not "proof" of how effective these service dogs may be for everyone. More science and data is needed, she emphasizes, and to me this book helps make the case for more research into the oft-controversial topic of diabetes alert dogs.
Surprises, and Thumbs Up
So many book reviews are, by nature, full of of spoilers (in the interest of enticing you to buy the book). But we're not going to do that.
Suffice it to say that Elle & Coach elicits tears, laughter, fist-clenching and hopeful heart swells and smiles. There are some nuggets of pure awesomeness that I just can't spoil by giving away -- twists and turns that you just weren't expecting. All of it compels you to read on, with a new appreciation for all the pages you've already read through.
In short, we highly recommend this book -- along with a supply of tissue to go along with your read!
But before you go barking up that tree to buy this book, here's a chance to win a free copy for yourself...
A DMBooks Giveaway
Interested in winning your own free copy of the new book, Elle & Coach by Stefany Shaheen? Entering this giveaway is as easy as leaving a comment:
1. Post your comment below and include the codeword "DMBooks" somewhere in the the text so we know you'd like to be entered to win.
2. You have until Friday, Oct. 9, 2015, at 5pm PST to enter.
*NOTE: Our comment system does require login via Facebook or via a few select email platforms. If you prefer, you can also enter this giveaway by emailing us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject header "Elle&Coach Book."
3. A valid email address, or regular logging on Facebook, is required to win. The winner will be chosen using Random.org.
Good luck, dog lovers!
This contest is now closed. Congrats to Kelli Polk-Nimmo, who was chosen as the giveaway winner by Random.org!