Perhaps the ability to bless the life of someone else is one of the greatest gifts one person can give to another.
Since Fiona came into the life of Cambridge Middle School math teacher Kris Vaske, she’s been that sort of blessing.
If you ask Vaske about Fiona, she would describe her as loving, energetic, well-behaved, a good friend and life-changing.
What makes the impact Fiona is having on Vaske’s life so unique is that Fiona is a black lab.
“It has been a blessing. It’s incredible,” Vaske said. “I can’t believe that these dogs can do what they can do.”
Fiona and Vaske were matched in August through Can Do Canines, a nonprofit organization that places personal assist dogs with persons in need of assistance with certain medical conditions like seizures, hearing impairment or mobility issues.
In Vaske’s case, the need for help in managing her diabetes became evident after she experienced a low blood sugar incident that left her unconscious in the parking lot of Target for four hours before she received any help.
Vaske was the first in her family to be diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes over 20 years ago as a senior in high school. She has low blood sugar unawareness, which means that her body is no longer able to recognize by physical response clues that her blood sugar is low.
Fiona uses her incredibly sensitive nose to detect when Vaske is has low blood sugar and retrieves juice and even a phone to call medical responders if necessary. Fiona is able to smell a chemical change in the composition of Vaske’s breath that is related to rapidly dropping or low blood sugar levels and then alerts Vaske by touching her with her paw of her low blood sugar level.
Low blood sugar prohibits the body from using insulin for energy and results in a multitude of symptoms from feeling nervous or jittery in mild situations or unconsciousness, resulting in comas and seizures in more severe cases.
“Nothing has been as reliable and good as she has,” said Vaske who went through hundreds of testing strips in trying to monitor her blood sugar throughout the years without the same reliability that Fiona has given her.
Before she received Fiona, Vaske even tried using a continuous blood sugar monitor, provided through Medtronic, only to find it was painful, expensive and hard to use.
The ability of Fiona and other medial assist dogs to nurture and save lives is an invaluable service that is priceless to the people who receive help that another person cannot necessarily give them.
Vaske shared that her first Can Do Canine, Harriet, who is retired from service, was at work when she alerted an elderly man of high blood sugar in the 400s while vacationing up north with her new family. Harriet retired as a service dog in July because of her development of grand mal seizures, yet both her instinct and her training still allow her to recognize a diabetic in distress and have a positive impact in helping recognize dangerous blood sugar levels that have serious health consequences.
That’s the kind of help that Vaske and other diabetics find priceless.
For Vaske, who lives an active lifestyle that spans beyond her classroom as a coach and outdoor enthusiast, Fiona provides the security she needs to embrace day-to-day living as fully as possible.
“She can come with me anywhere; it’s a little strange going out in public because you always get attention that you never got before,” Vaske said. “She takes care of me, and I take care of her.”
While Vaske does not let her diabetes limit her ability to do things, she is open about the challenges that come with diabetes and the high maintenance it takes to keep it under control.
“I’ve tried not to let it hold me back, but you really just have to plan for things,” Vaske said. “Always have a snack on board, always have testing equipment close, think about your activity for the day and plan.”
Things like stress, sickness and heat complicate the ability to manage diabetes and a system of knowledgeable support is key.
“No matter how hard you try sometimes to control diabetes, there are so many variables that go into it,” Vaske said. “People who don’t have diabetes don’t have to think about it.”
Because Vaske lives alone, she depends on Fiona when she cannot depend on someone else. Fiona has alerted Vaske to a low blood sugar at 2 a.m. and delivered her juice, which spared Vaske from an incident where she would typically have to go to the emergency room because she didn’t wake up.
The Can Do Canines are trained to be very specific in action. Fiona undergoes regular training and maintenance, and Vaske’s relationship with Fiona has required that she learn a lot about dogs, how they think and how they behave.
“Most people think that when I have her, she’s not for me and that I’m training her because I don’t typically look like someone who needs a service dog,” Vaske said. “I think one thing for diabetics is that it’s really hard to ask for help, and unfortunately it’s not like having a broken arm; people can’t see it unless you make them aware.”
Vaske encourages an open awareness that diabetics share with people around them.
“If you know people who are diabetic, ask about it every once in a while,” Vaske said. “Don’t be scared.”
Vaske recommends qualifying and needing adults apply for a Can Do Canine. The process requires an application, a letter from a doctor expressing a need for an assist dog and two recommendation letters from people other than family. From there, an interview and an assessment of an individual’s ability to properly house and care for the dog are conducted.
Can Do Canines undergo $20,000 dollars worth of training, vet bills and food to get them ready for service. More information on the application and training process can be found on can-do-canines.org.
The investment in the dogs is something that Vaske knows is worth it because of the impact the dogs have to positively influence the quality of life for those people they service.
“The (dogs) who affected me the most is the autism assist dogs because the kids who are autistic really can’t get out in public,” said Vaske of the autism Can Do Canines, which are enabling the opportunity for families with autistic children to enjoy public outings that are typically not possible. With the outlet a service dog provides, autistic children are able to bond with them and calm them in taxing situations.
The help Fiona gives her is something Vaske is beyond grateful for. She believes in the mission and the value of Can Do Canines, she said.
“Fiona is awesome and I will forever support Can do Canines because of it. I highly recommend that people go down for a graduation or a tour,” said Vaske who has personally witnessed the difference these dogs are making in the lives of people, lives like hers. “She’s pretty special.”
While Vaske is fortunate to have the help of Fiona and friends, she remains positive about the future of diabetes. With both medical and technological advances, Vaske predicts that the disease will be overcome.
“I know someday they’ll find a cure,” Vaske added.
For more information about Can Do Canines, call 763-331-3000.