For 7-year-old Luke Nuttall, his dog Jedi is his real-life guardian.
Luke has type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease that affects as many as 3 million Americans and has no cure. Since Luke’s pancreas stopped producing insulin, which allows his body to get energy from food, the glucose in his blood can quickly spike high or fall low. This is especially dangerous when Luke is asleep, but Jedi can smell these changes.
Luke’s mother, Dorrie, recently shared on Facebook the story of one nighttime incident where Jedi lived up to his name. Nuttall woke up to find Jedi lying on top of her: a warning sign. Luke’s continuous glucose monitor showed that he was OK, but Jedi wouldn’t budge.
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“I knew he meant business, and the sleepy fog started to wear off,” Nuttall wrote. She pricked Luke’s finger and read 57, which was definitely low. Based on Jedi’s behavior, Nuttall guessed that Luke was dropping fast — and he was still asleep.
In over four and a half years, Luke has never woken up on his own to notice low blood sugar, which is why he relies on his parents to wake up three times a night, and on Jedi for the alerts, which often come before his monitor’s.
“Type 1 diabetes is relentless, and we need as much help as we can get,” Nuttall wrote. She was able to give Luke a glucose tab and snap a photo of Jedi in action, which went viral on Facebook. Nuttall started her Facebook page “Saving Luke – Luke and Jedi – Fighting Type 1 Diabetes Together” in 2012 to share their story.
Luke was diagnosed when he was 2.
The quest for a service dog
“The first thing they did was tell me I had to give my son a shot,” Nuttall said. “I remember my hands didn’t move out from under the table, and I kept saying ‘I don’t want to hurt him.’ They told me the insulin was going to keep him alive and healthy. This was something I had to do.”
After the diagnosis, Luke was struggling with the shots, and Nuttall was still scared. “I went online and found a service dog company that promised the moon,” she said.
After more research, she found out that the company had multiple lawsuits filed against them. She began working with a local company who offered to help her train Jedi as a puppy, but with no guarantee that he would be a service dog.
“Not every dog has the temperament to be a service dog,” Nuttall said. Fortunately for her, Jedi was the perfect match for Luke.
Although no two days are alike, Luke’s blood sugar tends to drift above or below range (below 75 and above 150) between five to eight times a day. When this happens, Jedi can smell the change in chemical composition. He grabs a bringsel — a short stick used by service dog — and brings it to whoever is home as an alert that something is wrong. Nuttall then trained Jedi to wave a paw if Luke’s blood sugar is high and to bow if it’s low.
“With every alert comes a finger prick. We confirm it, too,” Nuttall said. Sometimes Jedi will beat the blood meter by 10 minutes. In that case, Nuttall will tell him out loud that they will wait a few minutes to test Luke again.
Most importantly, when Jedi’s alert is confirmed and Luke is given treatment, the Nuttalls reward him with a “puppy party.” He gets treats, food, time with his favorite toy, a Pillow Pet shaped like a dog and lots of attention. “We make alerting fun for him,” Nuttall said.
More training to be done
Luke lives with his father, mother and three brothers in Los Angeles. For now, Jedi doesn’t go to school with Luke; instead, he’s monitored and Nuttall stays in close contact with school nurses.
Luke and Jedi have been together for three and a half years, but Jedi still requires constant training and doesn’t replace the human aspect of being the parent of a child with type 1 diabetes.
“We still set alarms every night,” Nuttall said. “It’s really hard being someone’s pancreas.” Service dogs are not the right option for everyone, Nuttall says, which is just one of the topics she discusses on her Facebook page.
“The page helped people understand that Luke would not outgrow this and that it can’t be fixed by a pill,” she said. “Luke is an active kid. He plays baseball and soccer, but he also wears a pump and has his finger pricked eight to 10 times a day.” That’s why Nuttall shares his story and works hard to encourage parents to research type 1 diabetes and its warning signs. “It’s an invisible disease,” she said.
Nuttall has high hopes for Luke and Jedi.
“When Luke is older, I want him to feel like he always has Jedi with him,” she said. “They’re great companions and absolutely love each other. When he looks back at his childhood, he may remember the shots and finger pricks, but I also want him to remember the puppy parties.”