Newton’s nose knows: Diabetes alert dog sees after local girl
When 9-year-old Bella Getty was diagnosed with diabetes three years ago, her family’s life was forever changed.
It ripped at the soul of her mother, Courtney, to have to lie on top of her crying and resisting child to stick her with a needle over and over again. The only relief came in knowing what was causing the little girl – then 6 – to have an insatiable thirst while urinating dozens of times a day.
Type 1 diabetes is incurable. It is the kind of disease that doesn’t care if Bella quits eating cupcakes or whether she ever exercises. And, she didn’t inherit it. But it can kill within minutes the child whose body and soul match her name.
Three years after the diagnosis, the Getty family has bought a diabetes alert dog they cannot afford in hopes that Bella will not only survive the disease, formerly known as juvenile diabetes, but thrive.
“I’m trying to give her every tool for her to be reasonably independent,” Courtney said. “I want her to be able to go to friends’ houses for a playdate. I would love for Newton to go with her to college.”
“Sir Isaac Newton” is a goldendoodle, a cross between a golden retriever and poodle, that arrived at the Gettys’ Logan Boulevard home on Aug. 1 with a trainer and a hefty price tag: $25,000.
They got the fully trained dog – they simply call him Newton – from the National Institute for Diabetic Alert Dogs, based in California. NIDAD usually requires full payment up front but made an exception for Bella because of her overwhelming lack of awareness of her body.
“Bella is very unaware of when her sugar is low,” Courtney said. “She’s often into the 30s before she realizes it.”
The optimal range is 80 to 100.
Bella’s “passive personality” makes it even more difficult, as she is reluctant to draw attention to herself. Visiting a corn maze last fall, Bella quietly turned to her mother and whispered, “I think I’m low.” A needle prick and a few moments’ wait showed she was at 21.
Newton is expected to do what Bella cannot.
“He can smell the change as it is occuring,” said Lily Grace, who founded NIDAD 14 years ago. She delivered Newton, whom she had trained for well over a year, to the Getty home and then she trained the family.
The dog’s keen olfactory sense enables him to immediately notice the change in Bella’s breath because “any acid-based changes” going on in the body manifest themselves in the respiratory system first, Grace explained.
How important is early detection?
“Her blood sugar starts to plummet and it can go down to 20 in a matter of 15 minutes,” Grace, an RN, said, explaining hypoglycemia. “She could have a seizure at that point. She could quit breathing. Her brain could stop working because it has no glucose to keep it going and she could die.”
But Newton immediately notices that change, and, then, thanks to his training, he alerts Bella – about 20 minutes before “Becky” notices.
“Becky” is the nickname that Bella has given the glucose monitor connected to a port in her abdomen 24 hours a day. The family purchased it after Bella nearly bottomed out at the cornfield last October.
It is just one tool, as Courtney still wakes up twice in the middle of the night to manually check Bella’s blood sugar. After three years, the child has adapted and can sleep through it. If the level is low, however, she has to wake up to take a glucose tab or juice.
That’s what happened last week when Courtney woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. She decided to check on Bella first and saw that the monitor read 88. Moments later, as she came out of the bathroom, Newton had jumped from the floor where he sleeps onto Bella’s bed, alerting her – actually he was patting Bella’s friend who was there for a sleepover, Courtney said with a laugh. Becky was down to 81.
Bella’s sugar is typically tested a dozen or so times a day – more if she is sick – including just before mealtime and every time Newton puts his paw on her stomach or lap – his alert sign. She also gets six injections of insulin a day. She chose not to wear a pump that would require still another port in her body.
Bella was afraid of Newton at first. They both weigh nearly the same – about 65 pounds. Now he goes everywhere with her, including Bible school at Calvary Baptist Church and other public places. During one recent outing at an Altoona restaurant, another patron didn’t hesitate to ask if Newton was a “seeing eye dog.” Relaying the story later, Bella rolled her eyes and said, “I’m not blind!” Her mother had tactfully explained to the customer that Newton is a “service animal.”
“You can’t see diabetes,” Courtney said. Her patience allows her to overlook personal questions, including those regarding her daughter’s eating habits. She realizes most people don’t understand the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
“She can eat cookies, cupcakes, any of that, but, like the rest of us, she shouldn’t eat that every meal,” Courtney said. “We get our insulin on the inside (from the pancreas). She gets hers from the outside. Exercise, her diet will not change her condition.”
Courtney is becoming an advocate, going so far as to call on a change in protocol across the country that would require every child to be tested for diabetes, considering it took months for her to convince a local pediatrician to test her own child.
“Look at what happened with Ebola,” she said. “Maybe five people had it in this country and within a matter of months, they changed the protocols in hospitals across the United States. Why can’t they test every child for diabetes? There are way more kids with type 1 diabetes than there are people with Ebola.”
The mother has had to “train” a few teachers at Baker Elementary, where Bella enters the fourth grade on Wednesday. In the past, she would ask them to watch for warning signs, including any odd behavior by Bella. This summer, the family, trainer Grace and Newton met with school officials, explaining among other things that Newton’s breed is considered hypoallergenic so as not to bother Bella’s classmates with allergies.
“They could have made it difficult on us, but they didn’t,” Courtney said. “It is federal law, after all.”
She believes other children’s fascination with Newton will wear off within a week; the dog will lie on the floor next to Bella in class.
“The whole time he’s at school, he’s at work,” she said. “He’ll be wearing his vest.”
And when Newton is wearing his vest, he is working and not to be played with. He knows he’s “off work” when his vest is removed, and he gets to rest in his crate or run and play at home, Courtney said.
“I can’t cure Bella, but I can educate people,” Courtney said.
She has immersed herself into the type 1 diabetes “family,” going to conventions and workshops, seeking a support system online for like-situated families. She and Bella even got to meet Miss Idaho, who openly wore her insulin pump in the swimsuit competition of the 2015 Miss America pageant.
And, the mother still works full time as a teacher, while attending to her other child, Evan, a typical 5-year-old who wants as much attention from his parents as other kids do.
One night, while Courtney was on the phone learning about a new trend in the diabetes field, she placated Evan with a handful of Teddy Grahams. Later, she was overcome with guilt, realizing that she had fed her son an entire box of the graham crackers for dinner.
Nowadays, Courtney also finds herself busy with figuring out how to pay for Newton. They have a year to pay NIDAD the $25,000 fee; Grace explains the cost is so high because it takes her up to a year-and-a-half to train one dog. In addition to goldendoodles, she trains golden retrievers and labrador retrievers.
The Getty salaries aren’t enough; she is a teacher at Frankstown Elementary, her husband a state employee. The family has health insurance, but it doesn’t cover Bella’s $300 a month in diabetic supplies alone. For that, they got her qualified for Medicaid that covers expenses for children with chronic diseases or development disabilities. None of it covers Newton.
A dinner fundraiser with a silent auction is set for Nov. 21 at the VFW hall in Duncansville. A GoFundMe account has been established online and other fundraisers will be scheduled. Courtney has created a Facebook account so friends can follow their ordeal (Look for Getty Sugar Paw Blessings). Courtney doesn’t hide her wish for a philanthropic savior to swoop in and save the day.
Short of that, Courtney said, she will ask people for loans to pay off the expense of the dog that makes it a tad easier to keep Bella alive.
“Diabetes is manageable,” Courtney said. “It’s hard – like nailing Jello-O to the wall. But it doesn’t have to be fatal.”
While Bella is more likely to suffer from hypoglycemia – low blood sugar – she also has bouts with high sugar levels, a condition called hyperglycemia. Its dangers are less imminent – a person could die within days, not hours – but over time can cause problems from blindness, to heart problems and death.
“The low is so dangerous,” Courtney said. “But you want to avoid the highs that can damage her organs for the future.
“If she wants to be a mommy one day, I want to do everything in my power to make sure she can be.”
Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.