At first, you might feel a bit sad to hear that Michigan diabetes alert dog Blaze is almost always on the job, constantly working to alert his human, Katherine Wallace, to high or low blood sugars. She was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as a child almost two decades ago, and her dog has an important job with little time off, given her history of seizures due to hypoglycemia.
But don’t feel bad for this 2-year-old golden doodle service dog with the adorable nickname, “Fluff Butt.”
He's gone to see Hamilton twice, goes paddle-boarding every summer, ran the Detroit Marathon (and alerted twice!), goes to nursing school classes, and much more.
We learned all about it from Katherine recently, after meeting her and Blaze at a local diabetes event in Metro Detroit. She’s behind the "Life with Blaze" feed on Instagram and Facebook, and today we’re thrilled to feature a guest post from Katherine here at the ‘Mine.
Katherine Wallace on ‘Life with Blaze’
The year was 2001, I was 9 years old. I remember my dad came home from a week-long work trip in Germany. He saw me and he instantly noticed how much weight I had lost from the last week. The night he came home he took me to Steak n' Shake. I ordered so much food plus a shake, then went to the bathroom a few times to pee, but every time I came back my dad always asked if I threw up, which I thought was weird. (He recently told me it was because he thought I had an eating disorder and wanted to see if I would eat).
The next morning on Feb. 10, 2001, I woke up to my dad telling me breakfast was ready, and when I sat down I chugged a giant class of orange juice then said I’m full and went back to my room. Next thing I knew we were on our way to the hospital.
When they told me I had type 1 diabetes we didn’t know anything about it. None of us had even heard about it and no one in our family had it. The first question my dad asked was, “Is she going to die?” and the next question was, “Can she have kids?”
I was a pretty independent kid so when the nurses were teaching my parents how to inject an orange, I took the shots away from them and told them I can do it myself. Ever since then I did my own injections, pump changes and finger pokes. Of course being only 9, my parents always drew up the insulin because back then we had to mix cloudy and clear.
I had my first seizure from a bad low only 3 weeks after diagnosis, my mom tried putting oral glucose on my cheek and I ended up nearly biting her finger off and making her go to the hospital with me for a shot. Seizures would occur here and there because of lows, especially when I was sleeping. I can’t imagine the sleepless nights my parents had just checking on me every few hours to make sure I was still sleeping.
Fast forward to when I was 18 years old. I moved out and rented a house with a friend. My parents were obviously worried and always asked, “What if something happens?” My response was: “Something could happen when I’m home with you or while I’m at work with people around, but if something does happen, the hospital is less than a mile away.” They didn’t think that was funny. All of my parents' worries came true; I had severe lows and had a seizure at the house while my roommate was gone, at Moosejaw where I worked and at my other job after I taught a fitness class.
I moved to an apartment by myself when I was 22 and was using a Dexcom G5 CGM, but still wasn’t waking up to the alarms or phone calls from friends who got alerts. It got to the point where I would purposely eat and drink juice without insulin to make sure I wouldn’t have a bad low or seizure through the night and I could live to see another day. Sounds dramatic, but this is the life of a type 1 -- always worrying always thinking about the unknown. I knew something needed to change.
I have always heard stories about dogs being able to detect blood sugar changes and alerting their owners. This thought has always been in the back of my mind, but I didn’t think it was for me, until I started having at least 4 grand mal seizures a month due to low blood sugars. Then I realized this was my last hope for a better life.
I did extensive research about all the companies that train diabetic alert dogs. I called a few and almost got scammed by one. I found Lily Grace Service Dogs from a new friend I met in the Diabetes Community on Facebook. I called Lily and we talked for over two hours! She answered every question and concern I had about how the dogs are trained, what to expect, how my life would change with a service dog, and the list goes on and on. She mentioned she had one available and he’s mine if I wanted. I jumped at the chance and learned his name is Blaze.
I fell in love instantly! This was going to be my guardian angel! He was 10 weeks old and started training with Lily at her home in Idaho. I live in Michigan and had to collect saliva samples and sent them to Lily so she could train Blaze. (I recommend following her Facebook page to learn more about how she trains her pups.) I checked Facebook every day, eager to watch new training videos of her and Blaze and pictures of my growing boy. I was counting down the days until I could squeeze the little fluff butt (that’s what I call him because his butt is indeed fluffy, haha!)
On Jan. 5, 2018, I flew to Idaho to meet Blaze, learn how to handle him and then bring him home with me forever. When I saw Lily and Blaze walk into the hotel lobby, I started to cry. He was this cute little 6-month-old puppy who’s going to look after me and I him. I though, "He’s my shadow who will follow me everywhere" (with exceptions of surgery rooms and burn units).
To be honest, when I was on the plane to Idaho, I was having doubts about Blaze. Will this actually be life-changing? Is it going to be worth the money? Will this dog be an inconvenience? But when I met Blaze for the first time he alerted right away and all my doubts went away! He smelled my high blood sugar that was obviously a result of how excited and nervous I was to meet him (and Lily).
Blaze alerts when I drop below 80 mg/dL or raise above 150. Does he catch every single high? No, not always, but you bet your bottom dollar he doesn’t miss a low! He wakes up from sleeping to alert to my lows, he runs across the room at the gym where I teach to tell me I’m dropping (or rising), and as much as I love Dexcom G6, Blaze alerts way before Dexcom tells me there’s a change. He gets me juice when I ask him to, he keeps me on top of my numbers and he provides a new life that no technology could ever give.
Before I was placed with Blaze, I was having multiple seizures a month, but since I got him, I have only had three in a span of a year-and-a-half.
In November 2018, I was diagnosed with epilepsy. Which explains the multiple seizures, but my neurologist said that my seizures are only triggered by low blood sugar (he explains it in a way that makes sense and a way I will never be able to). Does Blaze do something if I have a seizure? YES! With help from Lily, if I ever have a seizure Blaze either lays down and protects my head by laying down under it and/or he lays down on my chest and he licks my face until I wake up.
After my most recent and hopefully the last seizure, I woke up feeling Blaze laying on me, licking my face. I typically don’t like going to the hospital after a seizure unless something is wrong when I wake up. This time, something was wrong. When I woke up I couldn’t see out of my left eye. My vision was occluded and I didn’t know from what. The ER doctor did an ultrasound of the eye and saw a retinal tear. I went home still not being able to see and the next day saw a retinal specialist, who thank goodness said there was no tear, but there was a lot of blood in the eye that could have been from the way I fell or hit my head during the seizure.
Unfortunately, we don’t know because the seizure was not witnessed. The doctor told me he’s confident that he can bring my vision back either from laser treatments, which we are trying first, or if that doesn’t work then with eye surgery. I had only one laser session to date with minimal changes, but I’m not giving up hope. I explain my vision as looking through a tiny metal pasta strainer. There are little holes of light coming into my eye that I can see out of. Annoying? Yes, but permanent? No.
Even though my life seems crazy, I’m still fortunate to work two jobs, both of which are supportive of my life with Blaze. I recently got accepted into the nursing program at the University of Detroit Mercy after it’s been 5 years since the last time I was in college. I stay active by taking fitness classes at Orange Theory, rollerblading and paddle boarding, which is Blaze’s favorite thing to do.
Through all of this chaos, Blaze is always by my side. He gives me the confidence to live my life the way I want to. To pursue my dreams and to not always dwell on the unknown. I love him so much and I spoil the crap out of him to thank him for it.
Don’t ever feel bad for Blaze working, he has gone to see Hamilton two times with me, he goes paddle-boarding every summer, he ran the Detroit marathon relay with me (and alerted twice), he comes to all of my classes with me which makes him the smartest dog, and next summer he will be the “dog of honor” in my sister's wedding! Service dogs are not for everyone, but for me, he is my whole world!
Thanks for sharing your story, Katherine! Blaze is great and we so glad you have him, to make life with diabetes (and epilepsy) less scary and more enjoyable.