Harrisburg teacher to get helping paw in managing diabetes

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HARRISBURG — The last thing a busy first grade teacher needs is Type 1 diabetes, but Kelsey Fisher is used to it by now. She has been living with the disease for the past 19 years.

“I was diagnosed at 8 and a half,” Fisher said. “I’m now 26.”

Type 1 diabetes means the pancreas no longer makes insulin. For some unknown reason, the body’s immune system attacks the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, which is the energy source for all of our cells. For a short time before she was diagnosed, Kelsey showed some classic signs, including going to the bathroom constantly, drinking excessive amounts of water, and becoming more lethargic.

One day while her aunt was babysitting her, she noticed Kelsey wasn’t being herself.

“I was very lethargic, I wasn’t smiling, I wasn’t talking much, and I was going from couch to couch,” Fisher said. “So she called my mom and she just said, ‘Listen Barb, this is not like Kelsey. Something is terribly wrong.’”

Fisher was eventually diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

“I was really only in the ICU for a day, but I was in the regular hospital for about four days,” Fisher said. “I was really getting educated on everything it requires to manage diabetes. That was education both, for myself at 8 and a half years old, and for my parents as well. It’s a huge undertaking.”

Challenges of type 1 diabetes

Fisher describes the disease as a “beast”.

“With type 1, often, there’s nothing you can do to prevent it,” Fisher said. “Type 1 diabetics have done nothing to get type 1 diabetes, whereas you can prevent type 2 up to a certain degree.”

She said the disease affects her life daily.

“We’re busy all day long and so teaching, I’m so focused on the kids or I’m so excited that we’re learning to read or we’re identifying vowel sounds or something like that,” Fisher said. “And I forget, 'oops, it’s 10:30, we’re about to eat lunch and I probably need to test my blood sugar.' Having an occupation that’s busy does make it very difficult to pay close attention to those blood sugars.”

Some of the scariest moments come when she's asleep.

“You’ll often hear the phrase ‘dead in bed’,” Fisher said. “Oftentimes, a diabetic’s blood sugar will go low while they’re sleeping.”

When this happens, diabetics can’t feel that they are going low.

Fisher recalls multiple times during college where she had to crawl out of bed to the refrigerator to get food because her blood sugar was so low.  

To regulate this, Fisher wears an insulin pump and a Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM). A CGM is a sensor that goes along with the diabetic’s insulin pump. It checks her blood sugar levels every five minutes, day and night. However, the CGM lags 20-30 minutes in a diabetic’s real time blood sugar level.

“So, the problem with this is, if you’re a 45 and your pump’s letting you know you’re a 45, you’ve probably been 45 or lower for 20-30 minute at least.”

Learning about diabetic alert dogs

While teaching, a fellow teacher mentioned to Fisher about diabetic alert dogs (DADs).

DADs are trained to sniff out scents in the saliva that can indicate high and low blood sugar levels. The dog can detect the blood sugar changes 20-30 minutes before the diabetic can feel any of the effects and before the CGM can.

“They quoted us on a price of anywhere between, I think $50-70,000, so you know, in hearing that, you go, ‘Well that’s great, but yeah right,” Fisher said.

She started looking more into diabetic alert dogs and joined several service dog groups on Facebook. While she was browsing these pages, she saw a picture that touched her heart.

“I was feeling a little bit down about not having kids of my own yet,” Fisher said. “I was cruising Facebook and up popped this picture of a young woman lying in a hospital bed with a newborn baby and this service dog with her.”

Fisher wanted that, so she clicked on the picture to find out more about where the service dog came from.

Insurance not covering costs

The National Institute for Diabetic Alert Dogs (NIDAD), based in California, had trained the dog she saw in the photo. An intrigued Fisher messaged one of the trainers for more information.

Fisher found out that that NIDAD only charged $10,000, significantly less than what she was quoted on at ten years old.

However, Fisher also found out that diabetic alert dogs are not covered by most insurances, including hers.

“They really are a tool that doesn’t exist for us any other facet, you know, the sensor doesn’t do what the dog does and so I’m hoping by spread awareness of these service alert dogs on all capacities, seeing eye dog, dog that are able to sense humans that are about to have seizures, that insurance might start to cover these dogs,” Fisher said.

Ellie the Diabetic Alert Dog

Fisher went ahead and applied to NIDAD for a dog. She found out later that she would become a dog mom to a goldendoodle named Ellie.

“I envision her, hopefully being able to lay by my desk while I’m teaching and engaging with the kids, you know, paying close attention to me, worrying about me,” Fisher said. “Hopefully, Ellie will also help my husband and me have kids of our own.”

Ellie is about three months old and is trained every day to detect low and high blood sugar scents, basic obedience, and public access manners.

NIDAD trainer Lily Grace said diabetic alert dogs is an extra tool to a diabetics Continuous Glucose Monitor and that a diabetic shouldn’t rely heavily on DADs.

“This is a tool that would help them get better control of their type 1,” Grace said. “It’s not going to replace anything that they’re currently doing.”

Grace recommends diabetics to use a combination of both a CGM and a Diabetic Alert Dog.

"These dogs can pick the drop in low blood sugar very quickly, they're really good on that end of the spectrum," Grace said. "Where I find that the CGM's are better than the dogs, is on the slow moving rises in blood sugar." 

Grace said a diabetic alert dog is still important to have. 

“They save someone’s life every single day,” Grace said. “I’ve been in this business long enough now, since 2002, that there isn’t, not even one day go by that I don’t get either a response from Facebook or an email or a phone call of something that one of the dogs did that I placed, how they are.”

Fisher hasn’t met Ellie yet, but said she is already in love with her.

“I get a ton of pictures and videos on Facebook of Ellie,” Fisher said. “I think it helps the human to know that their dog – Ellie is already mine.”

Sometime in August, Fisher will fly to California to pick up Ellie.