When Grace Pilo is in a ballet performance, she uses a continuous glucose monitor and insulin pump to make sure her blood sugar stays in a healthy range throughout the show. Grace, 15, has used multiple tools to manage type 1 diabetes (T1D) since she was diagnosed at age 10. And she recently gained another one: A Goldendoodle named Penny.
Grace was gifted Penny from an organization called 4E Kennels & their Non-Profit Healing Hearts, which donates many fully-trained service animals each year. Penny is just a puppy, but when she finishes her training, she’ll be a diabetic alert dog — notifying Grace of changes in blood sugar faster than most medical technology.
“Having Penny has just really opened up the doors to Grace’s dreams,” says Kaeanna Pilo, Grace’s mom. “Now, she has this best friend that’s always with her and on her side, wherever she goes.”
Sniffing out changes in blood sugar
Grace and Kaeanna first found out about diabetic alert dogs through a friend who has one. They learned that these dogs have extremely keen noses and can smell chemical changes that happen when blood sugar levels drop or rise. They are trained to signal their owners — and even wake them up at night — when these changes happen. While most medical tools notify you of changes in blood sugar around 30 minutes after they happen, a diabetic alert dog can signal you almost immediately and even up to an hour before.
Having a diabetic alert dog would mean Grace always has a partner in managing her blood sugar – providing her and her mom confidence and a safety net as she navigates high school, college and beyond with T1D. But these dogs can cost thousands of dollars.
“Insurance companies don’t cover that cost, so we started saving up and thought about making a GoFundMe,” Kaeanna says. “Then we learned about this organization that provides service dogs at no cost as often as they can, so we made a video and applied.”
A year later, Kaeanna got a call.
“They said we’d been selected and I broke down in tears,” Kaeanna says. “I knew Grace would have so much more independence and peace of mind. I cannot wait to sleep through the night knowing that Penny will be there to help Grace wake up if she needs to.”
They started planning the big reveal for Grace, which would be live broadcast on the local news in Seattle, in August 2021. Grace thought she was being interviewed about dancing and T1D. Then she saw a tiny, fluffy red puppy.
“I put two and two together and I couldn’t even talk,” Grace says. “It wasn’t only the relief of having this incredible tool that can really help me, but that she’d also be my new best friend.”
More than a service dog
The Pilos will have Penny with them until mid-November, when she’ll travel to Las Vegas for four to six months to learn the ins and outs of being a diabetic alert dog.
“Penny has already brought so much joy into our lives,” Kaeanna says. “She’s helped heal Grace's heart from the trauma of going through having the diagnosis and this whole life change. I don't think ‘service dog’ is a good enough title. She’s a family member, service animal and partner in crime.”
Grace, who is a high school junior, is still figuring out what her future holds. She is considering a career in nursing — an interest sparked by living with T1D, volunteering with JDRF and donating blood to the T1D biorepository at Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason.
“I’m not sure exactly where we’ll go, but I know Penny and I will make a great team and we’ll go far,” Grace says. “I’m so happy to have her in my life.”
October 26, 2021
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This blog does not provide medical advice, nor is it a substitute
for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.