GREEN RIVER — Green River teenager Elena Barrera was 13 when she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and combined with a lifelong hearing impairment, this provided a unique challenge to overcome.
Barrera, who is now a senior at Green River High School, has connected with Duty Dogs out of Cody to acquire a diabetic alert dog to help notify her when her blood sugar levels are out of range. The dog will be $30,000 in total.
For a type 1 diabetic, sleeping at night can come with a risk due to blood sugar levels going too high or dropping too low, which is more immediately dangerous. Due to her hearing impairment, Barrera cannot hear the alarms her devices make when her blood sugar is out of range. This is why she will be getting a diabetic alert dog before leaving for college after her high school graduation.
“I currently detect low and high blood sugars at night with the help of my family. They are able to wake me up and notify me that my blood sugar is not in range and I can take action,” Barrera said. “This is the main reason as to why the diabetic alert is so important. The dog will be able to wake me up when my blood glucose level is too high or too low.”
Extreme blood glucose levels, whether high or low, have long-term and short-term dangers. However, it’s the lows that carry the most immediate risk.
“The dangers of low blood sugar are extreme. When my blood sugar is low I feel jittery, tired, and sometimes I don’t think clearly. My family members say that when my sugar level is low I am ‘out of it’ and incoherent. If low blood sugar isn’t treated in time it can lead to many dangerous situations including diabetic coma, passing out, and even seizures,” Barrera said.
Learning to Live With a Chronic Condition
Barrera was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in September 2017, right at the start of her teenage years. She felt the diagnosis stripped her of the independence she was just starting to acquire.
“The learning curve for me was very challenging. I was diagnosed about a month after I turned 13. It was my first year of middle school and I was just starting to gain some independence. When I was diagnosed, that was immediately taken away from me,” Barrera said. “I was completely clueless as to what type 1 diabetes is. I had to learn how to care for myself in a week and a half.”
Type 1 diabetes is where the pancreas doesn’t produce insulin or produces very little insulin. Without insulin, blood sugar cannot enter the cells and it instead builds up in the bloodstream which can be damaging to the body and can lead to complications.
Due to this, type 1 diabetics are required to give themselves insulin through injections or an insulin pump. This means calculations must be done to give the correct amount of insulin, however, it can still be easy to give too much or too little insulin, leading to high and low blood sugars.
Barrera suddenly had to learn the ins and outs of this chronic disease that would now be impacting her everyday life for the rest of her life. On top of that, she had to figure out how to deal with high and low blood sugars at night when she wouldn’t be able to hear the alarms.
“I was born with a genetic mutation called connexion 26. This caused me to be profoundly deaf. When I was 14 months old I had surgery to get a cochlear implant. With this implant, I was able to train myself to hear,” Barrera said.
She said she was fortunate to have the help of the Child Development Center, in which the teachers taught her American Sign Language (ALS) to communicate.
“I also had fantastic speech therapists. Because of their help and support, I did not miss out on any opportunities,” Barrera said.
Next Steps with Duty Dogs
Barrera recently got in touch with Duty Dogs and started following the process to acquire a diabetic alert dog. A set of Labrador Retriever puppies were born on Christmas Day and they will train those puppies to become alert dogs.
“Once they train the dogs and get to know their abilities, I will be assigned a dog,” Barrera said.
The dog will help Barrera gain some independence by allowing her to go to college without the fear of nighttime high and low blood sugar levels. The dog will be able to wake her up in the event that her blood sugar is out of range, giving her comfort and safety.
“I settled on Duty Dogs because they have a type 1 diabetic son and I feel that because they have a child with type 1, they understand to another level how important these dogs are and that they have the proper and best training,” she said.
She added that Duty Dogs has great reviews on previous dogs they have trained.
“I also thought that it was very neat that they are located in Cody, Wyoming,” Barrera said.
A diabetic alert dog comes at a high price, totalling $30,000. There is a payment plan that Barrera will follow to pay for the dog.
“I will pay $3,000 when the dog is eight weeks old. While the dog is being trained, I will pay $1,600 a month for 15 months. This will add up to $24,000. Then when I am officially given the dog I will pay the remaining $3,000,” she explained.
With going to college, this cost will be quite steep for Barrera and her family.
Barrera plans to attend Western Wyoming Community College following her upcoming graduation before transferring to the University of Wyoming.
“I think by doing this I will get used to taking care of myself with the help of the diabetic alert dog, but still live close to home if there is an emergency. Once I get comfortable enough, I will feel confident to transfer to a University,” she said.
Anyone who is interested in helping Barrera can contact her at email@example.com.