By Billy Cox
An alert dog named Duffy gives Bradenton family peace of mind for Thanksgiving. For the first time in eight years, and just in time for the holidays, Sophia Helme is no longer on a short leash with Type 1 diabetes.
Thanks to a remarkable dog named Duffy, the 20-year-old State College of Florida student can go places and do things without worrying about whether her volatile condition will knock her off her feet. “I have some family coming into town for Thanksgiving and honestly I think they’re more excited to meet Duffy than they are to see me,” Helme said. “But that’s OK.”
Set to turn 2 years old next week, the newest addition to the Helme clan is a black Lab specially trained to alert his new owner to potentially catastrophic rising blood sugar levels. A snout bump to the leg, scratching, pacing, a look called “the stare” — Duffy’s nose for trouble can give Sophia Helme as much as a 90-minute heads-up on when to take an injection of insulin.
Duffy is a graduate of Eyes Ears Nose & Paws, or EENP, a Carrboro, North Carolina, outfit that produces mostly Labrador and golden retrievers to assist humans with seizure, blood sugar, and mobility issues. Trained for nearly two years by North Carolina prison inmates, these canines aren’t cheap — the cost of their training is roughly $20,000. Duffy’s arrival at the Helmes’ home in Lakewood Ranch on Nov. 3 marked the culmination of a two-year learning curve that began in 2017 when Operation Patriot Support raised that amount, plus an extra $5,000 for personal training and travel expenses, to put Sophia Helme on the road to independence.
OPS is a Bradenton nonprofit that raises money for veterans, first responders and their families. John Helme, Sophia’s dad and Duffy’s new grandfather, is a Navy veteran and Sarasota County Sheriff’s deputy. In 2011, Sophia Helme was found to have Type 1 diabetes, a genetic condition in which the pancreas is unable to produce insulin. She had her sights set on attending college following graduation from Sarasota Military Academy two years ago, but her biggest challenge was how to stay ahead of her fluctuating blood sugar levels. A bad episode can take up to six hours to stabilize.
Dogs’ sense of smell is 10,000 times more acute than humans, and EENP trains its breeds to focus narrowly on specific disorders.
Now a State College of Florida student, Sophia Helme visited EENP for a meet-and-greet with candidate dogs in August. She spent 10 minutes each with five different canines. Duffy evidently picked her out when, with Helme’s blood sugar rising, he began to whimper. She revisited Duffy again in October, when the two bonded for two weeks before coming home to Florida. Helme says Duffy responds to as many as 30 commands, and alerts in eight different behavior modes. Her mom, Andrea, says Duffy has even alerted on her own blood sugar levels, believing them to emanate from Sophia. “He’s already made the biggest difference in my life,” Sophia Helme said. “I can take him everywhere and I feel safe. In fact, they say trust the dog, and then the (glucose) sensor, in that order.”
Helme is a junior at SCF and hopes to continue her education at the University of South Florida-Sarasota, with an eye on elementary education and/or child psychology. Between now and then, the family volunteers for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, in hopes that the fundraising will eventually lead to a cure.
Thanksgiving gift: A dog that sniffs out trouble before it begins. “It’s just been the greatest relief, to know Duffy will do everything to protect her,” Andrea Helme said. “It’s a true gift — I’m even able to sleep through the night now. We have Duffy to be thankful for this year. He makes everybody happy.”
Credit: Sarasota Herald-Tribune