by Chris Harris
Watching young Haylee Whitis walk around, leash in hand, with her new dog, seems sweet if unremarkable on the surface. She looks like any other little girl would, proudly taking her new pet out for a stroll. Exactly what one would expect.
But Haylee isn’t just any girl. And Bristol isn’t just any dog.
The arrival of Bristol, a black female Labrador retriever, signals a tremendous change in the quality of life for the entire Whitis family, as the highly-trained canine might just save his youthful owner’s life.
“The minute Bristol walked into our house, she became Haylee's best friend,” said Dana Whitis, Haylee’s mom. “It's like she knew who her girl was that she was going to take care of. She is already a big part of our family.”
Dana first started trying to raise the money to get a dog like Bristol in January, after many harrowing moments for 8-year-old Haylee had driven her mother to the point of fear for her child’s day-to-day well-being.
Haylee has Type 1 diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes. Commonly found in children and younger adults, the condition renders the body unable to produce insulin, a hormone the body needs to convert food into energy, moving glucose into one’s cells. Lack of insulin causes glucose to stay in the blood, which can cause damage to the body and organs. Type 1 diabetes causes one’s immune system to attack the insulin-producing beta cells.
As a result, Haylee was experiencing seizures in the middle of the night and was under a constant threat of blood sugar levels dropping at a moment’s notice. Haylee has striven to maintain an active lifestyle — playing basketball, just being a kid — but her condition made it difficult to function the way her peers might.
The solution — or as good a solution as exists for someone like Haylee — was a diabetic service dog, available from a company called Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers in Virginia.
“(The) diabetic alert dogs are trained to recognize and alert on the scene of low and/or high blood sugars for someone with Type 1 diabetes,” said Dana. “While most might think that the blood glucose meter is all Haylee needs, we need this additional tool to help manage blood sugar fluctuations, so that in the future we can try to prevent some of the devastating effects Type 1 diabetes has had one her body.”
Such an animal would not come cheaply. A price tag of $25,000 was attached to Bristol, and like many families in communities like Somerset, that kind of money isn’t just lying around the house.
Fortunately, the community rallied around the Whitis’ cause. By April, the family had what they needed, thanks to a variety of fundraising efforts.
“I just want to thank the community for all the help and support that you have given my family this year,” said Dana. “Everyone has been a big part in bringing Bristol to Somerset. We had a local lady that gave $4,000 from her husband’s trust fund, a $5,000 donation from out of town that has remained quiet, and people buying t-shirts (for “Benefit for Haylee Whitis”) plus giving donations.”
Dana works for the City of Somerset Water Department, and one major help was a charity basketball game played between members of her municipal family, the Somerset Police Department and Somerset Fire Department. The game raised close to $5,000 for Haylee’s dog.
To recognize the help they gave, the Whitis family brought Bristol by the fire department on South Central Avenue Friday, so that some of the first responders who put their time and talents toward the cause could see the fruit their efforts bore.
“Our job is to help people, and it isn’t just with fire or police protection or even EMS,” said firefighter Coby Dykes. “Any way we can help people, and this was a great way for us to help out.”
Added Greg Martin of the Somerset Police Department, “It was just one more basketball game. The community support blew us away.”
Dana also mentioned local teenager Sarah Henry, who also has Type 1 Diabetes. Bristol provided a valuable blood sugar notice for Sarah after she came to visit her friend Haylee.
“Sarah has been a big help to Haylee,” said Dana. “She invited her friends to her birthday party and instead of gifts, she asked people to give her money so she could help Haylee. She gave Haylee over $300.”
Last week, the big day finally arrived — and so did Bristol, on October 8. Bristol has already proven an invaluable asset to the family. Dana said that Bristol’s first alert came only an hour after getting to town.
“We went to Lowes on Thursday night and (Bristol) alerted (that there was a problem),” said Dana.
“I checked Haylee and she was 67 (mg/dl, a sign of low blood sugar).
“Bristol uses her paw to alert as well as yawning and even sometimes she will freeze up and not move, keeping her eyes on Haylee, she added. “Her alerts are very noticeable and are always correct. It amazes me that she is only four months old and can sense when Haylee is high or low.”
Even though it’s a welcome change, having Bristol around has been an adjustment, since taking the dog with Haylee wherever she goes is a must.
“Not going to lie, going out in public for us was hard,” said Dana. “The first place we went was (local restaurant) Casa Grande. When going out to eat, Bristol has to lie under the table and no one can pay attention to her, not even us. It is a lot different and people look at us like we are crazy.
“If you see us out in public, Bristol is working and you do have to ask to pet her,” she continued. “At home, we can treat her like a puppy but still have to train and work with her. She has a very important job to do. Bristol has her eyes on Haylee all the time.”
A lot of work goes into preparing Bristol for a job like this. Erin Gray, trainer with Warren Retrievers, came down for the first few days of Bristol’s integration into the family to help with the transition — obedience training, public access familiarity — and will come back every 90 days for the next two years to check up. Gray explained how Bristol’s unique talents were developed.
“We have our own breeding line,” said Gray. “We start (the dogs) at seven weeks of age with basic obedience, and we use scent samples from other Type 1 diabetics or Type 2 diabetics. From our breeding lines, we know that they have that ability, and they are all put through evaluations to make sure they have that ability as well.”
Gray also pointed out that each family gets to pick out the name for their own dog, and then Warren Retrievers gets the canine used to the name during its training.
The Whitis family has already given some of the extra money they’ve raised to other families in need of service dogs, knowing all too well just how important it is to have the resources that Bristol and her trainers have offered.
“Warren Retrievers is a great organization,” said Dana. “They have been amazing to work with. ... I will help this company and any family get a service dog, just like my family has received. It is a blessing.”
On Sunday, October 20, the Whitis family will hold a meet-and-greet for Bristol at New Direction Worship Center, located at the end of Bogle Street, as a sort of thank-you party for all those who helped the cause. Because they didn’t just give Haylee a dog — they gave her a lifeline.
“As a mother, I am so grateful to have (Bristol),” said Dana. “I know that she will be Haylee’s lifesaver.”