McCrabb: Dog sniffs out diabetic problems

This J’Lo never will grace the cover of a fashion magazine or fill an arena with screaming fans like Jennifer Lopez, but she’s equally impressive — for much different reasons — than her namesake.

J’Lo, a three-pound papillon, a breed that derives its name from its characteristic butterfly-like look of the long and fringed hair on the ears, watches guard over a sixth-grader at Edgewood Middle School, and alerts the boy every time his diabetic blood sugar drops or rises to unsafe levels.

Athan Bunger, 12, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was 5, and at first, his mother, Rachel Bunger, thought he had the flu. Eventually, when the symptoms worsened, she took him to Cincinnati Children’s Liberty Campus, then he was rushed to Children’s in Cincinnati and placed in ICU.

“It was scary,” his mother said. “He was close.”

Close to death, close to his organs shutting down, close to planning a funeral.

Once Athan’s sugar levels stabilized, he was released from the hospital on Christmas Eve 2008. Since then, dealing with her son’s diabetes has been a constant struggle for the single mother, a special education teacher in the Centerville Schools District.

She has monitored his blood sugar levels around the clock, and every night, her sleep was interrupted because she had to check on him, sometimes every 15 minutes. There were times when it bottomed out; other times it skyrocketed.

Their lives were controlled by diabetes.

Then one day, as so often happens, a random event occurred that changed their lives forever. When Bunger was finishing up her bachelor’s degree at Miami University, she heard a presentation from 4 Paws for Ability in Xenia, an organization that trains service dogs. In May, she was told that a dog was being trained as a diabetic alert dog, but something happened to the prospective owner.

J’Lo was available. Athan and the dog trained for six hours a day for 12 days, and they became a team, though there’s no doubting who’s the superstar.

She never leaves Athan’s side, whether he’s sleeping, attending class or playing soccer. Because of her intense training, and her nose — 1,000 times more sensitive than humans’ — J’Lo can detect the tiniest shifts in body chemistry that change his typical scent.

She knows Athan’s blood sugar is about to spike or drop before his meter. When J’Lo detects that Athan’s blood sugar either has dropped below 80 or jumped above 150, she immediately licks his face. If he doesn’t react, or wake up, she pulls on his clothing.

As a last resort, she will run into another room and alert Athan’s mother or a teacher in the class. When his mother enters the room, and begins caring for Athan, J’Lo returns to her sleeping spot. During the night, J’Lo has alerted Athan several times, and on each occasion, she’s right. This girl has a nose for numbers.

“It’s like a game,” Athan said. “Just to see if she’s right.”

Rachel Bunger said J’Lo is like having another adult in the house.

“She has given me peace of mind,” she said.

She also has allowed Athan to remain in class instead of spending time in the nurse’s office, as what has happened the last several school years.

J’Lo, who is 2, probably will be with Athan for the next 10 years, meaning they could be together until he graduates from college.

In the first few weeks at Edgewood Middle School, J’Lo has given the students and staff a unique opportunity to learn more about diabetes, said Principal David Slamer. She also has given Athan some freedom back.

“He can be his own age, his own person,” Slamer said.

The dog has created no problems in the school, Slamer said. She sits on a blanket next to Athan’s desk.

“We just have another student, a little hairier,” he said with a smile. “Instead of having 1,000 students, we have 1,001.”

J’Lo cost about $15,000, and so far the Bunger family has raised about $500. She said fundraising efforts are continuing, and they won’t stop even after 4 Paws for Ability has been reimbursed.

“That’s the least we can do,” Rachel Bunger said. “The dog has meant the world to us.”

These service dogs not only improve lives, they save lives, she said.

And what can you do Jennifer Lopez?

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