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Pet detective

PUBLISHED: 21:18 01 July 2016 | UPDATED: 21:18 01 July 2016

Claire Pearson and Pal

Claire Pearson and Pal

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

Meet Pal, the amazing medical assistance dog saving one Kent diabetic’s life on a daily basis

Falling unconscious on an almost daily basis at any given moment and being found by her children was a common occurrence for Sittingbourne-based Claire Pearson.

But for the past three-and-a-half-years the mother of two has had a lifeline and indeed a new way of living courtesy of her pet dog Pal and his highly trained nose.

Without doubt the six-year-old black Labrador with a penchant for sausage and cheese saves Claire’s life on a daily basis and is her constant companion. In fact, she says she literally couldn’t live without his presence and canine scenting skills. People with brittle diabetes mellitus 
(or labile diabetes) experience frequent, extreme swings in blood glucose levels, which causes hyperglycaemia or hypoglycaemia.

To further complicate her medical condition, Claire was diagnosed with renal failure 10 years ago, a long-term side effect of Type 1 diabetes, which she’s had since she was six. This meant she could no longer detect the warning signs to changes in her blood sugar levels.

Not having any hypo awareness like slurred speech or blurred vision in the years after the kidney failure diagnosis and before Pal came into her life, Claire, husband Steve and sons Jake, 21 and Jed, 18 lived in a constant state of fear about her health.

Claire says: “All of a sudden I became quite ill and ended up in hospital with my blood sugars sky high; I had hyperglycaemia and was in for nearly three months. The doctors told me my kidneys were starting to fail and at some point I would probably need a kidney and pancreas transplant and most probably dialysis.

“When I came home I suffered with severe depression and was diagnosed with post-traumatic-stress disorder because of it all. It was like having a bomb dropped on my world and that’s when my hypo awareness started to slip away and became almost non-existent.”

Claire’s children, then aged seven and 11, had the frightening prospect of frequently finding their mum in a heap on the floor and having to call an ambulance on almost a daily basis.

She adds: “There would often be a note left from one of the neighbours saying they had picked me up, or the children would come home to find either the ambulance on the doorstep or a message to say your mum’s in hospital.

“My husband couldn’t take jobs that were too far away because he was forever getting phone calls to say get home as Claire’s not too well. My mum would ring me three or four times a day and depending on what type of reaction she got, she’d then ring Steve to say I think you’d better get home as Claire’s not making any sense on the phone. It was impacting the whole family.”

While looking for support for her children (subsequently found in the shape of the Young Carers Project), Claire found an advertisement for the charity Medical Detection Dogs.

As well as its more widely known ground-breaking work in the detection of cancer, the charity also provides assistance dogs to help those with severe medical conditions such as Diabetes, Narcolepsy and Addisonian crisis.

However, Claire’s long-held fear of dogs was a bit of a stumbling block and she admits: “If you’d asked my mum if she ever thought that I’d be owing my life to a dog, she’d have said ‘no, not in a million years’. It wasn’t until I met Steve and he had a dog that I thought, actually they’re not so bad, maybe I could get to like them.”

Fast forward to 2015 when Claire and Pal’s relationship was so strong and valued that they were nominated by her sons in the Crufts Friends for Life competition and even reached the list of finalists. Claire and Steve instigated their first contact with Medical Detection Dogs in 2010 and two years later were invited to meet Pal; the bond was instantaneous. “He came up to me with his tail wagging, sat by my feet with a tennis ball looking at me as if to say, ‘well come on then, if you’re going to take me home you at least need to learn how to play ball!”

Claire adds: “Each time I had a hypo I had to collect my scent and Steve, who was still driving at the time (he has since been diagnosed with MS) would have to take all my blood sugar samples. Pal was gradually introduced to the samples so he could learn to recognise my scent. We had a fantastic socialiser and he wouldn’t be half the dog today if it hadn’t been for her.”

Medical alert assistance dogs stay with a socialiser in a home environment from about 12 weeks old. By 18 months Pal was ready to go home with Claire, but not before astounding her and Steve during their first overnight stay.

“We stayed in bed and breakfast near to the charity’s HQ and Pal woke me up that very first night about 3am alerting me to my blood sugars falling. It was one of those jaw-dropping moments, we just sat there looking at each other saying, ‘did he just do what he just did?’

“Pal came home with us after that weekend and fitted in fabulously straightaway, it was as if it had always been his home. He has gone from strength to strength.”

A mere look from Pal and Claire knows that he is about to warn her of an oncoming hypo and he will also lick between her thumb and forefinger from one hand to the other and then a paw will come up on her leg.

“Then he will go and fetch my blood glucose sugar monitor and if it’s low he will fetch my glucose, a bottle of Lucozade; he knows exactly where it’s kept and where to bring it to.

“He’s picked up on my blood sugars falling and rising more than 10,000 times now in the three and a half years I’ve had him. That’s about 10-15 times a day on average.

“He’s potentially kept me out of hospital, saved my life – I couldn’t be without him now. He’s just doing what his nose is meant to do naturally and he’s a fabulous family pet, he loves his walks and his romps in the woods.”

With loveable Labrador Pal at her side, Claire has a safety net and such new-found confidence that she is able to take on some voluntary work for the charity which supports her and Pal.

“I’m one of the south-east speakers and we do a lot of talks and fundraising for different people, groups and schools. Pal loves the fuss and attention from everybody there, but nothing will stop him from alerting me.

“We could be half way through a talk and if he picks up on my blood sugars dropping then he’s there, he’s letting me know that I need to stop what I’m doing, sit down, check my blood sugars.

“Pal will watch me check my blood sugars until he knows that I’ve taken the right course of action and that things are starting to come back up to a reasonable level.”

The waiting list for a medical assistance dog is roughly two years and there are about 71 assistance dogs in the country, with just three in the south east – all based in Kent. The cost to train a dog like Pal is in the region of £11,200 and there are strict criteria to apply for a dog.

“I am hoping one day that I will get my new kidney and pancreas transplant, that would be my ideal goal,” Claire says. “At the moment life’s good because I have got Pal in my life and he’s the answer to a lot of my prayers.

“I’ve been through all sorts of changes of drugs, medication, diet regimes, insulin control, blood sugar monitors but he is by far the best medicine I’ve ever had.”

Find out more

Meet Claire and Pal at the Medical Detection Dogs’ stand at this month’s Kent County show, Detling, 8-10 July and at Paws in the Park also at Detling showground on 17-18 September.

Medical Detection Dogs

• Medical Detection Dogs trains dogs to detect the odour of human disease. It is at the forefront of the research into the fight against cancer and helping people with life-threatening diseases

• The charity’s bio-detection dogs are trained to find the odour of diseases, such as cancer, in samples such as urine, breath and swabs. Meanwhile, medical alert assistance dogs are trained to detect minute changes in an individual’s personal odour triggered by their disease and alert them to an impending medical event

• The charity relies entirely on the generosity of donations from trusts and the public

• Currently, the majority of medical alert assistance dogs work with people with diabetes. However, the charity also provides alert dogs for those with other very dangerous health conditions including Addisonian crisis which causes severe pain, convulsions and unconsciousness which lead to collapse and hospitalisation; severe allergic responses and narcolepsy, a malfunction of the sleep/wake regulating system which causes sleep attacks and paralysis

• The charity continues to investigate other debilitating and potentially fatal conditions which our dogs may have the ability to help

• For more information, visit www.medicaldetectiondogs.org.uk.

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