Service dog communicates what Brianna cannot
“Are you okay?” asks 8-year-old Brianna Bertrand, offering a sweet smile. “How are you doing?"
Brianna, who is autistic, asks these questions, but ironically is unable to answer them because she can say little else.
This became a life-threatening problem a year ago when she was diagnosed with Type I Diabetes, requiring her parents, Dana and Joe Bertrand, to monitor her blood sugar levels around the clock.
“She's unable to have a conversation with you or to tell you how she feels when she's sick,” says Dana.
With the assistance of Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals at Via Christi Health, the Bertrands, whose 11-year-old son Kenneth also is autistic, now have some four-legged help: Cyrus, a medic alert service dog specially trained to detect changes in their daughter’s blood sugar levels by smelling her breath and skin.
The Bertrands applied for a dog last year, but were told they would need to wait 12-18 months and pay $2,500 for the animal and his training.
Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals helped cover part of the expense and Cyrus, a nearly 2-year-old Labrador, met his new family on March 19.
“We truly appreciate their help and support,” says Dana, adding that CMN Hospitals also has provided financial help with the cost of Brianna’s medical supplies.
Cyrus goes everywhere with Brianna, who is home-schooled but goes out several times a week for speech and occupational therapy sessions and swim lessons. Cyrus stays at her side during the day and sleeps in her room at night. When Brianna doesn’t smell right, the dog goes to Dana to alert her.
“He doesn’t bark,” says Dana. “He just comes to my bedside at night and stares at me until his presence wakes me up.”
Brianna’s pediatrician considers the dog a valuable contributor to Brianna’s care – and not just because Cyrus can communicate changes in blood sugar.
“In Brianna’s case, the dog provides a calming effect much like carrying around a teddy bear,” says Dr. Elaine Harrington, a pediatrician at Via Christi Clinic. “This is valuable to a child with autism.”
He also could help Brianna become more independent as she grows, Harrington says.
Cyrus was adopted from a program called Cares, Inc., a nonprofit in Concordia, Kan., which trains both dog and family.
“He is better trained than my own children,” says Dana with a laugh.
Dana heard about the program through a friend.
“I knew about dogs for the blind, but I had no idea about this,” she says, noting that the family met with some resistance when they first started bringing Cyrus with them wherever they went.
“I’ve had to do a lot of explaining that we are protected by law,” Dana says. The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that medic alert service dogs have access to public places that dogs might otherwise be prohibited, such as restaurants, grocery stores, pools and schools.
Cyrus wears a special service dog vest and Dana carries a laminated card explaining the law, but some people still think the law only applies to guide dogs for the visually impaired.
“It can be embarrassing,” Dana says. “I want people to support what we’re doing.”
Harrington also hopes people will become more educated about service dogs, which can be trained to both prevent and respond to medical emergencies by warning of a spike in blood sugar or an impending seizure, or go for help when it’s needed.
“Frankly, I think we need to be using them a lot more than we do,” says Harrington.