HYPO unawareness is used to describe a situation where people with diabetes, usually type 1 diabetes, are unable to notice when they have low blood sugar levels, hypoglycemia.
Most people with diabetes are able to recognise the symptoms of hypoglycemia, which include feeling weak, sweaty, confusion and tingling in the fingers or mouth. They’ll quickly rectify the situation by eating some food and getting on with the rest of their day.
But not so Jeanne Oakley of Wonthaggi.
Sometimes when her blood sugar is low, she’ll simply zone out altogether, unaware of the situation. She might look like she’s just sitting quietly at the kitchen table but she’s actually in danger of losing consciousness or worse.
As if contracting the mystery auto-immune disease wasn’t enough, a condition which activates the immune system to destroy the cells in your pancreas, which make insulin.
Jeanne’s condition is made life-threatening by the hypo unawareness.
That’s where ‘Buddy’ the wonder dog comes in.
It’s a quite incredible situation that this beautiful, lively, happy Groodle dog, a cross between a Golden Retriever and a Poodle, can actually detect minute changes in Jeanne’s blood sugar levels and alert her to the fact that she needs to do something about it before it’s too late.
“People like Jeanne, who are hypo unaware, are eligible for this program,” said Andrea Curtis, a diabetes educator at Gippsland Southern Health Service in Leongatha.
“We sent a sweat sample down when Buddy was only a puppy to help with his training,” said Andrea.
“They have a number of puppies they are trialling and the dog that reacts to the smell is the dog they use,” said Jeanne’s husband, Ian.
“We got him when he was eight weeks old and within 10 minutes of arriving here, he let me know that my blood sugar was too low.
“He’ll come up to me and put his paw on my knee or my hand or in public, he’ll bark and he gets agitated if I don’t do something about it.
“And he’s never wrong. He’s so smart. Even if it’s just gone down to four (4) he’ll know.”
“Typically your blood sugar should be between 4 and 8 and anything lower than that is a problem,” said Andrea.
In recent times, Jeanne has been approved for stem cell treatment, which hopefully could cure her diabetes, but while she waits for the opportunity, she has been fitted with a wearable device called a Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) which monitors her glucose levels 24 hours a day, sending readings by blue-tooth technology to a mini-insulin pump which delivers minute drops of insulin into the blood supply to maintain the balance.
It still means Jeanne has to take pin-prick samples of her blood twice a day, but it’s far better than having to prick your fingertip six or eight times a day and administer upwards of five injections.
Between Buddy and the CGM, Jeanne only has to inject herself once every three days now and not only does it allow her a lot more flexibility in her daily life and when travelling etc, it allows her, her husband and their family to feel a lot less anxious about Jeane’s day to day health.
And on top of that, Buddy is a beautiful companion to have around.
“When we got him eight months ago, he was only 4kg but look at him now. He’s grown to 25kg.
“One problem we do have, when going out in public, is accessibility. Some people don’t realise that he’s the same as a guide dog for me and he’s allowed to go in anywhere.
“I think the only places he’s not allowed to go are sections of the Melbourne Zoo and an operating theatre.
“I carry information and approval details with me but many people simply don’t know anything about it.”
If Jeanne is fortunate enough to secure the stem cell treatment, the stem cells will be injected directly into her liver where they can grow in the liver and start producing insulin. The daily monitoring and injections and even Buddy, will no longer be required.
Although, regardless of what happens, Buddy isn’t going anywhere.
Jeanne doesn’t know for sure how she contracted type 1 diabetes.
“It happened 30 years ago when I was eight months pregnant. I had the symptoms then but they thought I’d get over it after the birth.
“But I didn’t. I went into a coma before I realised it was serious.”
Thought to be in-part hereditary, one of her grandmothers had type 1 diabetes and several cousins have type 2.
For 30 years, Jeanne’s life has been heavily compromised by up to five injections a day and all the monitoring and precautions she has to take to deal with the fact that her body can’t control its sugar levels.
“If I can raise awareness about diabetes and also that there are more of these dogs around that will be a good thing.” Said Jeanne this week.