Nicole Harer knew her life would never be normal.
Her health complications kept any sense of independence a dream.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and post-traumatic stress disorder made her a regular at hospitals. On top of that, she went undiagnosed with diabetes type 1 for six years. The lack of glucose in the cells of her brain affected her everyday life. She was hospitalized for weeks at a time; and once doctors diagnosed the problem, the damage seemed terminal.
“I couldn’t write a sentence or say a full sentence,” Harer said. “My sugar kept going out of range. Doctors gave me eight years to a couple of years to live at the rate I was going. I couldn’t do simple things like go shopping by myself or drive. I couldn’t be alone.”
It would take a dog to change everything.
Harer and her husband Scott adopted a beagle and Labrador retriever-mix puppy from the Kentucky Humane Society as a household pet. Lexi was just about 5 or 6 weeks old. She had a gentle nature, unlike a young puppy. That gentle disposition at first raised Harer’s spirit, and later would save her life.
“Lexi was just so unlike a normal puppy, we thought she was really something special,” Harer said. “I thought she would make a great therapy dog and bring lots of comfort to people in the hospital or nursing homes.”
Harer researched on the Internet and found trainer Liz Norris, owner and service-dog trainer of Pawsibilities Unleashed Pet Therapy of Kentucky in Frankfort. Norris is a master trainer with 30 years of experience training dogs for the Air Force’s canine unit to do search-and-rescue missions, Harer said. Norris and Harer, who was in wheel chair at the time, bonded.
“I made an appointment and brought Lexi to her. After she realized Lexi’s attentiveness, she told she would make a great service dog, but it was too bad I wasn’t diabetic as she would make a great diabetic-alert dog,” Harer said.
Surprised and a bit taken back, Harer told Norris she was in fact diabetic, but that they couldn’t possibly afford to pay for the kind of training it might entail.
“She told me to think about what Lexi could do for me,” Harer said. “I had never heard of a diabetic alert dog. She showed us how Lexi picked up basic scent training. I would touch something and she would hide it underneath some cups. Lexi could pick it out. Concentration and focus seemed inherent in Lexi. Harer said Norris easily recognized that Lexi’s disposition was that of service, wanting to do tasks and wanting to please her owner.
Norris trained Lexi to detect high and low blood sugar with scent training in three days. When someone’s blood sugar drops a dog can smell it in the saliva. Lexi can tell whether a person’s blood sugar level drops to 69 or goes as high as 170 from the scent given by the saliva. Despite several months of mundane training as a service dog, Lexi, with over 250 million scent receptors, could tell Harer if her blood sugar level was crashing or spiking compared to a monitor, which can only give a snapshot reading. The difference wouldn’t go unnoticed. Lexi saved her life.
“I was on the computer in the kitchen and she nudged me. Lexi is trained to nudge me with her nose if my blood sugar drops to 69 or rises to 170, “ Harer said. “I checked my blood sugar and the meter gave me a very high reading as if my sugar was too high. Lexi kept nudging me and when your blood sugar is out you don’t act like yourself. I got annoyed and thought she was wrong.”
Harer’s monitor read almost 400. She didn’t realize the monitor had stopped working. She got up from the computer to get an injection to lower her blood sugar, an injection that would’ve killed her, she stood up away from the table and couldn’t feel her legs. Lexi brought Harer a fanny pack with the glucose injection in it and became frantically excited making almost a crying sound. Harer fell down and felt as if she was disappearing, her consciousness fading. Lexi put the injection on Harer’s chest and she remembered Norris telling her to always listen to her dog and not the meter. She remembers fumbling with the injection and putting it into her leg.
“When I woke up, my husband and Lexi were staring at me,” Harer said. “My blood sugar had gotten down to 29. Scott told me Lexi saved my life.”
Lexi has since saved Harer several times from dips and spikes in her blood sugar. Harer quickly decided she wanted to share her experience, her independence and help others attain the brighter future Lexi has given her.
“I decided I was going to help other people. If it wasn’t for Liz the trainer and Lexi I wouldn’t be here,” Harer said. “There is no way that I would be alive. If I had taken the wrong injection it would’ve killed me in 30 minutes or less.”
Harer wrote her first children’s book My Best Friend is a Diabetic Alert Dog and received interest from publishers as it was the first book on the subject. Harer has since finished a second self-published book , My Best Friend has Four Legs. Ten percent of each sale is donated to juvenile diabetes research and is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Harer does food drive fund raising outside of businesses like Walmart and Rural King to raise awareness about diabetic alert dogs and uses fund raising as a way to help people get service dogs they couldn’t afford on their own.
“The bond children or anyone can make with a service dog is really profound,” Harrer said. “They don’t realize how much it can completely change their lives.”
In researching her books, Harer talked with children in Shelby and Henry Counties about diabetes and found a disturbing symptom in all of them.
“They felt like it was their fault that they have diabetes,” Harer said. “They don’t take into account their genetics, but think since they are out of shape they deserved it. A service dog gives them companionship and they don’t have to be alone anymore.”
Lexi has been nominated for the 2012 Pet Groups United Awards for Excellence in the category of Hero Animal. She receives continuous training as a service dog.