Up the playground steps and down the slide, bounding from one obstacle to the next, the 2-year-old child was a nonstop running, jumping, whirling mass of energy.

But in the middle of playtime, Morrison Hooley had to stop. His mother called him over, where they went through a ritual that has become all too familiar over the past nine months.

Melissa Sherman held her son’s hand, pricked his finger quickly and deftly collected a drop of blood. Morrison is a diabetic, and his blood sugar has to be monitored constantly.

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“I feel like I test him all the time,” Sherman said. “His blood sugar will drop fast. They tell you that, but experiencing it — he’s fine one minute, then he’s not.”

Diabetes has upended the family’s life, leading to an unending cycle of pricked fingers, insulin injections and monitoring. The southside resident has to give blood samples up to 12 times each day to test his glucose level. About five times a day, he needs a shot of insulin to keep his blood sugar stabilized.

With Morrison being such a small child, it can be hard to read when his blood sugar is off-kilter. Sherman’s greatest worry is they miss a low, particularly when he’s sleeping.

If his blood sugar gets too low or high, Morrison could have a seizure, or go into a coma. Too much time could even lead to death.

But the family thinks it has found a four-legged solution to keep Morrison safe. They are working to purchase a diabetic alert dog, a specially trained service animal that can smell when Morrison’s blood sugar is abnormal and let his parents know.

“It’s another form of management. A diabetic alert service dog should never replace any sort of technology; however it is about using all tools available in unison to manage diabetes,” said Christy Weaver, client services director for Diabetic Alert Dogs of America. “And from a companionship standpoint the dogs are giving piece of mind, security and independence to their diabetic handlers.”

Morrison is an easy-going boy. He loves being outside, playing with toy airplanes and splashing in the pool.

But all of that running, swimming and playing can be dangerous with Morrison’s diabetes. The more active that he is, the more his blood sugar fluctuates.

Combined with the constant growth that comes with being a toddler, and the fact that he can’t communicate as clearly as an older child might, means that his parents have to be extremely vigilant.

The search for more and more resources to help led them to the diabetic alert dogs.

The animals are trained over a rigorous six-month program to recognize the smell of lower and higher blood sugar. The dogs first came into use in the early 2000s.

“It was determined that low blood sugar smelt acidic and high blood sugar smelt sweet and fruity,” Weaver said. “Dogs having far more sensory receptors in their snouts than in a human nose, which made identifying blood glucose levels easier for the animal.”

Morrison’s father, Jackson Hooley, his uncle and his paternal grandfather have type 1 diabetes, so the family knew that it was possible that Morrison would have it too.

At his 2-year-old check-up with his pediatrician in January, everything appeared to be normal and healthy. But two weeks later, Sherman was concerned. More and more, Morrison was constantly asking for water and acting like he was thirsty. He was also urinating more.

When his pediatrician tested his blood sugar, it was much too high to be normal. A normal 2-year-old should have a sugar level less than 200 milligrams per deciliter of blood. Morrison’s level was 600 — a clear indicator of diabetes.

The family went immediately to Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health.

“It was a whirlwind, that whole weekend. They started testing blood sugars and the insulin, testing antibodies in the blood to determine what type it was,” Sherman said.

Type 1 diabetes is a disease in which the body does not produce insulin to regulate blood sugar. Without the hormone, sugar in the bloodstream cannot be transferred to cells for energy.

Patients with the disease have to precisely calculate how much insulin they need, based on the amount of carbohydrates they eat, and inject it into their bodies whenever their blood sugar is off-balance.

Since being diagnosed, Morrison lives in a constant state of observation.

“He’s constantly going to be growing. His eating habits are constantly going to be changing. We’re constantly going to be changing the amounts of insulin for him,” Sherman said.

Every bite of food that Morrison wants to eat has to be tracked and recorded. He used to be a grazer, always nibbling on the healthy snacks that Sherman set out for him. That is no longer an option.

Sherman is working to get Morrison a continuous glucose monitoring system to help track his blood sugar more accurately. But at the same time, she believes that an alert dog is the best option right now.

“With his personality, as active as he is and since he doesn’t like having something attached to him all the time, it’s more of a normalcy thing,” she said. “This way, he’s not hooked up to a machine.”

She started working with Diabetic Alert Dogs of America, a Nevada-based training company, earlier this year. Purchasing a dog and paying for the training costs around $15,000.

Sherman has been saving money, and is prepared to put down the $2,500 down payment.

To prepare the dog, she will send Morrison’s saliva samples to the trainer, to get it familiar with his scent. Saliva taken at different glucose levels will school the dog on a safe range of blood sugar.

That way, any time Morrison’s blood sugar levels reach lower than 80 or higher than 150, the dog will use its paws to alert Sherman or another adult.

“The notification of a moving blood sugar early on alleviates dangerous low and high levels prior to reaching those points,” Weaver said. “Early notification also allows handlers the opportunity to treat their blood sugar early on.”

When the dog is ready, the animal and its trainer will come to Indianapolis to stay with the family and ensure the dog is doing its job.

Sherman understands that the service dog is an expensive tool. She has set up a GoFundMe page to gather donations, and has partnered with Revery in Greenwood for a fundraising dinner on Nov. 2.

Anna’s Celebration for Life, an Indianapolis-based organization that raises money to help children with special needs get the adaptive devices and tools that would otherwise not be available to them, is also helping with Morrison’s cause.

Anything Sherman can do to ensure her son’s safety, and make his quality of life the best it can be, the effort is worth it, she said.

“With all of the different things I’m trying to do, I just hope it goes well and this works,” Sherman said.

If you go

Morrison Hooley Fundraiser

When: 4:30 to 9 p.m. Nov. 2

Where: Revery, 299 W. Main St., Greenwood

What: A dinner benefit for Morrison Hooley, a 2-year-old southside boy with diabetes. His family is raising money to purchase an alert service dog, to warn his parents when his blood sugar becomes too low.

How it works: All proceeds from the cost of your meal during this time will go directly to the service dog fund.

Other ways to help: People can also contribute to Morrison’s cause at his GoFundMe page, gofundme.com/morrisonsalertdog.

Questions and other information: Please call or text 317-413-1467, or e-mail melissasherman1@gmail.com.

At a glance

Diabetic Alert Dogs

What is a diabetic alert dog?

Diabetic alert dogs are trained to alert in advance of low or high blood sugar events before they become dangerous. Then you can then take steps to return your blood sugar to normal, such as using glucose sweets or taking insulin.

How does a diabetic alert dog work?

Our bodies are a unique makeup of organic chemicals. All of which have very specific smells. Low blood sugar levels cause a release of chemicals in the body that have a distinct odor undetectable by humans. The training process positively motivates these dogs to alert when they smell these odors.

How will the dog alert?

Diabetic alert dog’s are trained to actively alert by simply “pawing” at your leg when your blood sugar is out of the target range. The dog will continue to “paw” and alert until blood sugar returns to a safe level. The dog will also be trained to alert while sleeping by physically jumping up on a bed to wake you, if your blood sugar levels are out of your range at night.

How does the training process work?

The new diabetic alert dog recruits are put through an extensive three-step training process. The first step is obedience school, where the dogs are taught both verbal and hand signal commands so that you may issue directives for your dog to follow. The second step is public service training, exposed to a wide variety of sights and sounds in public atmospheres catered to the client’s specific daily routines. The third and final phase of training is the specific diabetic scent recognition and alert signal duties. Trainers teach the dogs to alert to high and low glucose scents.

— Information from Diabetic Alert Dogs of America

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.