By Michele C. Hollow for Pet News and Views
Imagine how scared Destiny O’Brien’s parents were when they witnessed their child’s first seizure. At age 6, Destiny was diagnosed with Landau-Kleffner Syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy that effects children ages 6 to puberty.
Tests from Destiny’s first hospital visit showed that she had multiple seizures. The severity varies from simple to violent. Destiny was having both. After her diagnosis, she was on a lot of medications.
Her mom works in a school right next door to Destiny’s elementary school in Tennessee. “I was afraid to leave her alone,” says Rachel, Destiny’s mom. “The seizures happen suddenly.”
Destiny, now age 11, has friends who come over to her house. Her parents understandably don’t want to leave her with people who won’t know how to react to her seizures. Over the course of the last 5 years, Destiny has had a series of seizures. She spent two weeks in the hospital where doctors removed four inches of her brain, a small part of her skull, and put in six clamps, which will eventually come out. The clamps are helping to reform her brain.
When Destiny was first admitted, her doctor suggested she get put on a list for a therapy dog. It took 5 years, and now Salsa, a 2-year old Golden Retriever is always at Destiny’s side. “Salsa is my SBFFE,” says Destiny, which her mom translated to: ‘Super Best Friend Forever and Ever.'”
Training Service Dogs
Salsa was trained by Meghan Hopkins, who works with Canine Assistants, a nonprofit organization that trains service dogs for people with physical disabilities and seizure disorders. “We start training the dogs from the time they are a few days old and they graduate when they are between 18 months and 2 years of age,” says Meghan.
Meghan, a former school teacher, explains, “Destiny’s service dog, Salsa, was born and raised at our facilities in Milton, GA. She was trained to help people with physical disabilities and seizure disorders so she learned how to do things such as picking up dropped items, opening and closing doors, turning lights on and off, and going to get help. When Destiny has a seizure, Salsa can go get Destiny’s mom. She can bring her medication or the phone and will lay next to Destiny. Salsa has also begun to alert Destiny to her seizures about 15 minutes before she seizes. This isn’t something we can train the dogs to do; we aren’t even really sure what they are picking up on. It could be a sense of smell but we can’t guarantee that the dogs will do this.”
Detecting Seizures before they Occur
Shortly after Salsa came to live with Destiny, she woke up the entire house around 1 a.m. “Salsa sleeps in Destiny’s room,” says Rachel. “She was acting strange, jumping on and off the bed. We let her out because we thought she needed the potty. That wasn’t it. She just kept on jumping on and off the bed. Finally, she got tired of us not knowing what she wanted to tell us, and she jumped on the bed and lay across Destiny. Then Destiny said, ‘Mom, I think I’m going to have a seizure.’ I rushed and got her medicine, and she was fine.”
Since Salsa has entered Destiny’s life, Destiny takes less meds and has had fewer seizures. Her parents hope that she grows out of this entirely. Some children with this rare form of epilepsy do grow out of it when they reach early adulthood. Her parents don’t know what the future holds, but they are a lot calmer having Salsa around.
Service Dog Goes to School
Salsa sits quietly at Destiny’s side at school. When she is working the other children in the class leave her alone. “We let people play with her during play dates at our home,” says Rachel. “In school, she is working, and shouldn’t be a distraction.”
However, one day at school, Salsa acted out of the ordinary. She left Destiny’s side and lay across the teacher’s legs. Salsa didn’t want to leave the teacher. Later that day, the teacher had her first seizure. “I got a call from the teacher’s husband, and he said his wife had a seizure, and that Salsa picked up on it,” says Rachel.
Love at First Sight
Destiny, her parents, and her 9-year old brother, Devon, got to meet Salsa a few weeks before she came to live with them. “Destiny and Salsa seemed to have an instant connection,” says Meghan. “Destiny came to one of our training camps where she worked with a few different dogs. Salsa pretty much picked her out; they loved each other right away! The camp is 10 days long and the recipients are matched with their new dogs on the second day. We teach them our training methodology and show them how to get the dogs to work for them.”
Destiny always loved animals. Her family owns 5 horses, 3 cats, and another dog.