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Special service dog arrives at Wisconsin Hills

Sunny senses when insulin levels are off

Part of the training process for Sunny and Nathan Hatch is figuring out the day-to-day details, such as where Sunny should sit during lunch at Wisconsin Hills Middle School.

Part of the training process for Sunny and Nathan Hatch is figuring out the day-to-day details, such as where Sunny should sit during lunch at Wisconsin Hills Middle School. Photo By C.T. Kruger

March 27, 2013

Cynthia Hatch tiptoes into her son Nathan's room three times a night to prick his finger and monitor his blood-sugar levels. It's been this way for years, and Nathan's learned to sleep through it.

Skipping a shift could be devastating for Nathan, who was diagnosed three years ago with Type 1 diabetes and Addison's disease, a rare endocrine disorder in which the adrenal glands do not produce sufficient steroids.

Cynthia finally got some relief and a little peace of mind last week with the arrival of Sunny, a 14-month-old golden retriever.

Sunny does a lot more than sit, stay and rollover. He's a diabetic alert dog, trained much like a bomb-sniffing dog. Instead of sensing explosives, Sunny detects dropping blood-sugar and insulin levels.

Sunny and Nathan will be inseparable, from when they go to school in the morning to when they snuggle in bed at night. If Nathan's levels significantly rise or drop, Sunny will let him know by pawing, or even jumping, on him, increasing his aggressiveness with worsening conditions.

Nathan sent cotton balls with his scent to Sunny's trainer in Las Vegas so the dog could recognize the scent of his varying health states. After six months of training, Sunny arrived last week and was immediately introduced to Nathan's classmates at Wisconsin Hills Middle School.

Not so Sunny days

Three years ago, before the Hatch family had moved to Brookfield, the whole family came down with the flu. While everyone else recovered, Nathan got worse.

"The weekend hit and on Sunday night I noticed that Nathan looked a little different. His skin was darker and he looked sunken in, like a starving child from a Third World country," Cynthia said.

She went to bed hoping that things would be better in the morning.

"I woke up and he looked a hundred times worse," she said, "and I thought, 'Oh my gosh, my kid is going to die right here.' "

Nathan was rushed to the hospital. He was in critical condition. His organs were expanding at an alarming rate, and test after test came back inconclusive.

"We watched him wither right before our eyes," Cynthia said. The 9-year-old got down to 39 pounds.

Medical staff finally figured out Nathan had Addison's disease. The diagnosis shocked Cynthia and her husband, Dave, who had up to this point always seen their son as perfectly healthy. After doctors stabilized Nathan, they found he had Type 1 diabetes, too.

After spending two weeks in the hospital, it was time to go home. It was a horrifying thought for Cynthia.

"When we were sent home, I was afraid. My first thought was, how am I going to keep him alive?" she said.

She quickly learned to count calories and how to medicate Nathan with daily doses of steroids.

But a diagnosis simply names a problem, it doesn't solve it. As time went on, there were several life-threatening seizures, including a time when Nathan did what a lot of kids do. He only pretended to take his medicine.

"I just hated it. It dissolves in my mouth, and it tastes disgusting," he said. "It ruins my breakfast." He had dropped to less than 50 pounds again before Cynthia found the medication under the couch while she was cleaning. It was a life-threatening life lesson that temporarily resulted in a new rule: I'm going to watch you swallow it.

An answered prayer

When a family vacation was suddenly canceled because of another life-threatening seizure, Cynthia reached her breaking point. She needed help and decided to apply for a diabetic alert dog.

She wasn't overly optimistic. The National Institute of Diabetic Alert Dogs receives 50 applications a day and selects about 120 candidates a year, Cynthia said.

"When I got a call back saying that Nathan had been chosen, I was at my church in a class, and I just burst into tears," she said.

She started a blog to share Nathan's story and to help raise the $18,000 it would cost the family to train Sunny.

Sunny's arrival couldn't come soon enough. Last year, Nathan suffered a terrible seizure while in school at Wisconsin Hills.

"We knew it was life or death. We knew it took our whole team to save him, and we took every life-saving measure we could," Principal Robyn Martino said. "We can't wait for Sunny to be on our staff."

Tanya Fredrich, director of special education and pupil services for the Elmbrook School District, said Sunny is the first service animal in the district, which led administrators to collaborate with service animal agencies and legal counsel to develop a policy.

With Sunny's keen nose, Nathan's blood-sugar levels are staying more consistent, giving him more sustained energy. Sunny's only been here a short time, but Dave and Cynthia said the impact is obvious.

Cynthia tiptoed into Nathan's room at night again last week to prick his finger. Sunny looked up briefly and yawned. Cynthia checked Nathan's levels; they were fine. Cynthia said Sunny shot her a "I told you so" look.

To make an online donation to help pay for the Hatch's accumulated medical bills, visit the family's website at KeepNathanSafe.blogspot.com.

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