Weighing only 5 pounds, and small enough to fit in a dog backpack, Flame, an adorable papillon, works harder than most dogs three times her size. While she undoubtedly spends plenty of time doing regular dog activities like going for walks, Flame is specially trained to help her owner stay one step ahead of his epilepsy.
Flame’s story — which is also that of 14-year-old Joel Wilcox, from Blacklick, Ohio — is now captured in a comic book called “Medikidz Explain Seizure Assistance Dogs.” Sponsored by pharmaceutical company Eisai, this is the second book in a series designed to teach children about epilepsy in a way they can relate to.
Epilepsy affects about 2 million people in the United States, yet the general public still has many misconceptions about the disease.
“The Medikidz comic book series is a way for children living with epilepsy to learn more about their disease, but also for their classmates and peers to learn about it, too,” said Dr. James Wheless, a professor of pediatric neurology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, director of the epilepsy program at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital in Memphis, and a reviewer for the series. “It’s medically accurate, but it’s written in a way that’s meant to be a little bit more fun to get the information.”
Children with Epilepsy Have a Tough Time at School
The comic book highlights the difficulties faced by children and teenagers with epilepsy. For kids like Joel, the frequent seizures that come with epilepsy can affect their lives at home and in school, at a time when socialization is really important.
“It’s tough at all ages, but I think it’s tougher for kids because you’re trying to fit in, you want to be normal just like every one of your friends,” Wheless said. “And now you’re the one that has something different, you’re the one that takes medicine regularly.”
When he was around 11 years old, Joel started having many seizures during the day, and even at night. He had little time for anything else — including school and hanging out with friends — because he was constantly recovering from a seizure.
Although a new doctor and different medications eventually helped Joel get to the point where he had a little more freedom, by then he had already missed years of school and social time.
“Being out of society for almost two years — the last time he had gone to school was fifth grade and he was now an eighth grader — made things really difficult, because a lot of development occurs in children between those years,” said Joel’s mother, Amy Wilcox.
Teen’s Life Changed After He Met Flame
By the time Flame arrived on the scene, Joel was still dealing with the difficulties stemming from so much time spent homebound. He was often nervous, had trouble interacting with kids his own age, and suffered from panic attacks, which triggered seizures.
Joel’s mother knew of a family whose daughter was using a seizure alert dog, and that family led them to 4 Paws for Ability, a nonprofit organization that provides service dogs to children worldwide.
Soon Joel had a seizure dog of his own. 4 Paws provided the intensive training for Flame, teaching her to bark when Joel has a seizure to alert his parents or other adults. Flame even wakes up in the middle of the night when she senses Joel is going to have a seizure. Knowing this allows Joel to go to sleep without worrying.
Flame’s hard work, though, extends beyond keeping an eye on Joel’s health. Like most family dogs, Flame has become a friend for Joel, and that companionship has helped him slowly step back into the world he had been separated from for so long.
“Flame helped give me more independence and confidence to just go to school or attempt activities,” Joel said. “I felt more comfortable going to school knowing she was with me. She is my best friend, and she does not care that I have epilepsy,” he adds. “At home I have more freedoms, like being alone — with Flame — in my room or other rooms. Also, I am able to do things like showering alone and sleeping alone.”
A Unique Way to Teach Others About Epilepsy
Because Flame goes most places with Joel, this adorable papillon has become a way for Joel to teach others about epilepsy, which is also one of the goals of the Medikidz series.
“It’s been good for him socially, to start to engage folks in talking about epilepsy, because they’ll ask him why he has the dog,” Wheless said. “It allows him to approach that a little bit easier, and for peers maybe to get into that question a little bit easier, too.”
Medikidz plans on releasing future comic books to raise awareness about epilepsy and reduce the stigma that is associated with the disease.
While not covered in the latest comic book, Wheless also reminds people with epilepsy that there have been many advances in the treatment of the disease in recent years.
“If they have not seen an epilepsy specialist in a couple of years, and they are continuing to struggle with epilepsy, it’s probably worth them going back to see one,” he said, “because of all the advances that are there, there’s more hope than ever to treat their epilepsy.”
To order a free copy of “Medikidz Explain Seizure Assistance Dogs,” visit the Advancing Epilepsy Care website.
Photos courtesy of Eisai Inc.