On alert for diabetes

Brad Nettles/Staff Tim Hanchon checks 7-year-old daughter Kate’s blood sugar. Kate has Type 1 diabetes and has to be checked frequently to make sure her blood sugar is right.

Seven-year-old Kate Hanchon can’t have play dates or sleep-overs like other kids her age.

The downtown Charleston girl has Type 1 diabetes and needs to have her finger stuck and blood sugar tested eight times a day. Her parents must watch her constantly to make sure her blood sugar level doesn’t get so high she becomes hyperactive, or so low she becomes lethargic or uncontrollably emotional or faints. Both extremes could be fatal.

But life likely will begin to turn for the better for the Julian Mitchell Elementary School first-grader starting this summer, when she gets her own diabetic alert dog. Kate’s dog will be trained to sense and smell abnormal blood sugar levels, and to alert her and her parents before Kate experiences symptoms.

Kate’s mother, Tanya Hanchon, said the family raised the $19,000 required to purchase and train the dog in less than 90 days through a Facebook page and a website. The effort was so successful and people so generous that the family plans to continue raising money to purchase alert dogs for other diabetic children. So far, they have $1,500 toward the next dog.

Kate said she will name her dog Sprinkles. And if her blood sugar levels are not normal, the dog will bark. “He will be able to smell me from a mile away,” she said.

The training Dan Warren, founder and president of the Virginia-based Warren retrievers, from which Kate will get her dog, said that once completely trained, the dog likely could smell a change in blood sugar from up to five miles away.

And a diabetic alert dog could smell a teaspoon of sugar in an Olympic-size swimming pool, said Warren, a former Marine who trained dogs for narcotics and explosive detection.

Warren said his group places 11-week-old Labrador retriever puppies in the homes of the people with diabetes whom the dogs are being trained to serve. A trainer arrives at the home with the puppy and stays for five days, he said. Then for the next two years, the trainer returns for two days every 90 days to further train the puppy.

Kate’s dog will be trained to meet her specific needs and to alert her in ways that are appropriate for her and her family, he said. The dog might be trained to bark if it senses a problem when Kate is sleeping. But the dogs generally are trained to alert families in other ways.

Taking the burden Hanchon said she learned about alert dogs from a radio program. And she’s relieved her daughter will be getting one. Kate hasn’t been able to do many of the things other children her age can do. “The dog will take the burden of that away from her.”

Kate’s father, Tim Hanchon, a psychology professor at The Citadel, has been waking up every three hours through the night to check on his daughter. Once the dog is fully trained, he might actually be able to get a full night’s sleep.

Having a child with Type 1 diabetes makes it difficult to relax, especially when the child is sleeping, he said. That’s a time when Kate’s blood sugar could drop to a dangerous low and he wouldn’t notice it, he said. When a child has diabetes, “a nap is no longer just a nap. We have to think about whether she’s OK.”

Tanya Hanchon said most people simply don’t realize how serious Type 1 diabetes can be. “It’s an every minute of every day thought,” she said. “Right now, she’s fine, but we don’t know if she’ll be fine in 10 minutes.”

The alert dog will bring the family some peace, and allow them to relax and breathe, she said. “We’re planning on it going everywhere with us.”

Type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed in children and young adults, and was previously known as juvenile diabetes. In Type 1 diabetes, the body produces little or no insulin, a hormone that is needed to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy needed for daily life, according to the American Diabetes Association.

For more information, visit www.diabetes.org.

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.