Body & Fitness

Life-saving labrador changes diabetic Kiwi woman’s future

The clever canine has a very special job as an assistance alert dog.

Brenda Ferguson has lost count of the times she has come close to dying. The Dunedin nurse has had type 1 diabetes since childhood and, decades on, she still needs four injections of insulin every day.

Unlike most diabetics, Brenda, who is in her early forties, gets no warning she’s about to have a hypoglycaemic episode. In fact, her already dangerously low blood sugar levels drop so rapidly, she is often past the point of self-help when a “hypo” hits and she collapses.

Not only has she sustained numerous fractures, cuts, bruises and black eyes over the years, but she has also on occasion woken up to St John ambulance staff attending her. Every few hours, she will check in with family or friends to let them know she is okay. A trip to the dairy must be executed with military precision.

“I’ve collapsed many times over many years,” reveals Brenda.

“The last time I broke something was last year. I collapsed at home and my mother found me. I had broken my collarbone.

“I can’t even go to the shop to get milk without letting two people know what time I’m leaving and what time I’m getting back. If I’m five minutes late, or I‘ve been held up at the traffic lights or whatever, I’d have people ringing me, worried about me.”

The nurse bonded with her superdog within hours of meeting him.

She is, she concedes, a bit of a medical anomaly.

“I’ve had every medical test under the sun, but there is no rhyme or reason as to why my blood sugar is low all the time. It’s just always been like that. It’s been a real burden, for me and for others as well.”

Enter Pip, one of just a handful of diabetes alert dogs in the country and the only assistance dog specifically trained to work in a public hospital.

Pip, an affectionate two-year-old Labrador, is Brenda’s new best friend and tags along with her as she does the ward rounds at Dunedin Hospital. Wearing his blue identifying harness, he comes with Brenda when she’s driving – a condition on her licence means her blood sugar has to be above a certain level before she can get in the car – and when she goes on a walk.

Diabetes alert dogs are trained to sniff out and detect abnormal blood sugar levels, responding to impending hypoglycaemia with certain behaviour.

In Pip’s case, if Brenda is at work, he will leave his station in the corridor and walk up to her.

“At home, he nudges me with his nose or pushes my arm with his nose or paw. He will be at me the whole time until I stand up.”

Pip has been trained to bring Brenda her phone and to open her fridge to get her juice.

“Diabetics excrete a pheromone that dogs can pick up on before we do because they have a far more sensitive sense of smell than humans,” she explains. “Before getting Pip, I was posting sweat and skin samples to his trainers in Auckland, so he was being trained to know my smell.”

While it can take up to two months for assistance dogs to really come into their own, Pip proved his worth within two hours of first meeting Brenda, nuzzling her elbow to signal something was amiss.

There has been no need to call an ambulance since his arrival either.

“Quite often, a friend or my family would have to call St John because I’ve been so low, I needed IV glucose. It was getting to the point where the same crew would be turning up and we’d pick up the conversation we’d been having on their last visit.”

Brenda and Pip get ready for another day of work at Dunedin Hospital.

While Southern DHB was a little hesitant about having a dog working in a public hospital, initially taking the canine companion on a three-month trial basis, they are now right behind their unique staff member.

Nursing Director, Medical Directorate Sally O’Connor, says he’s become quite the star, adding, “We’re proud to be the first hospital board in New Zealand to have a specifically trained dog working in a hospital environment and that we‘ve been able to support Brenda to remain at work. Everyone loves Pip and he is a welcome addition to the ward.”

The lovable pooch is also making his presence felt around the city, although his purpose isn’t always obvious, laughs Brenda.

“Dad and I were in Bunnings the first week I had him and an elderly couple started following us around the store, pointing and staring. As we got into the car, there they were again – staring and pointing. They thought Pip was my guide dog and a blind woman was driving a car.”

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The special canine hasn’t come cheap. All up – think puppy obedience classes, feeding, training, veterinary bills and kennelling – an assistance alert dog costs $48,000. Brenda has to find $20,000 of that and has created a Givealittle page to help fund her share of the bill.

“The work that Assistance Dogs NZ, where Pip came from, does is amazing,” she tells.

“They train dogs to care for people with things like autism and Parkinson’s, but they have to survive on donations.

“I wouldn’t say I have 100 per cent control over my life now – I still have a huge group of people checking in on me – but the choker chain around my neck has definitely loosened. And that’s all thanks to Pip.”

The Kotuku Foundation, set up in 2006, also provides assistance dogs – at no cost to the owners.

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