Rebecca Gunderson’s new best friend might be a dog.
The former Gretna, Nebraska, resident received a diabetes alert service dog from Heads Up Hounds in Louisville, Nebraska Friday, thanks to assistance from the Council Bluffs Cosmopolitan Club.
“I’m overwhelmed with joy,” she said after spending the afternoon with her four-footed companion.
The dog, fittingly named “Hero,” is trained to alert Gunderson when her blood sugar is too high or too low.
“I actually met her maybe a month ago,” Gunderson said. “It was, like, an instant connection.”
Gunderson, 24, received Hero, a chocolate Labrador mix, in Elkhorn, Nebraska — a neutral location — where she will stay for a few days and get used to working with her.
“The trainer will take us to as many public access places as possible so we can learn how to handle our dogs,” she said.
Her mother went with her Friday, and her father planned to go with her Saturday.
Gunderson, a graduate student at University of Nebraska at Lincoln, has a friend at UNL who has a diabetes alert dog from the same company, she said.
“She has shown me time and time again how dogs alert, and I’ve done so much research on the company and the trainer,” she said. “The dogs actually alert at least 15 minutes before my electronic equipment. It’s really, really incredible. It’s an extra precaution — and the dog alerts at night, too.”
The Council Bluffs Cosmopolitan Club has launched a program, Paws Savings Lives, that offers supplemental funds to help people with diabetes who need help controlling their blood sugar levels purchase trained diabetes alert dogs.
Members decided about a year ago to look into starting the program because of Cosmopolitan International’s emphasis on helping people with diabetes, according to club President Steve Wymore. Part of the funding came from a $1,000 grant from the Pottawattamie County Community Foundation.
The club is helping another person now, too, but her dog is still in training, said Bill Treadway, who is coordinating the program.
“It can take up to six months to train a dog,” he said.
The dogs are trained to detect high and low blood sugar levels based on the odor of a person’s breath, Treadway said.
“I could be sleeping, and the dog would either wake me up or, if it’s a young child, wake the mother,” he said.
“It truly does save lives,” said member Larry Taylor.
Said Treadway, “The people that have a lull and go into a diabetic coma, half of them never come out of that coma.”
Member Kent Stopak believes the dog also plays the role of a teacher.
“I really think the dog is most about training the person with diabetes to sense when (their blood sugar) is low,” he said. “The technology doesn’t really do that.”
The club doesn’t cover the full cost of the dog, Treadway said.
“It’s important they have skin in the game investing their time and money in it,” he said.
“We don’t want someone who truly needs a dog not to be able to get one,” Taylor said.
Said Stopak, “We also know, if they’re not invested in it, it becomes an expensive pet.”
Gunderson was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 12 and has learned to manage it pretty well, she said. However, when another health problem arose, she suddenly found herself in a life-and-death situation.
It was June 2013, and she and her father were planning to go to the College World Series. They already had season tickets but, when the time came, she wasn’t feeling well.
Gunderson ended up in the hospital, where she was diagnosed with a kidney infection that had spread to her liver and lungs.
Within a day, she developed diabetic ketoacidosis, a condition where the body produces an elevated amount of blood acids called ketones because it can’t produce enough insulin, according to mayoclinic.org. If left untreated, the condition can be fatal.
“I was in the hospital five days on IV antibiotics, insulin, magnesium, potassium and sodium,” she said. “After those five days, I was good as new,” although she did take oral antibiotics for a while after discharge.
Gunderson grew up on a farm near Gretna and has been around animals all her life.
“I am very much an animal lover,” she said. “I grew up with dogs, cats, horses, cows — we had kind of a little bit of everything.”
Gunderson earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science in December and started on a master’s in applied science with an emphasis in youth leadership and extension education at UNL, but she was recently offered a job she couldn’t resist. She will be the state director of shooting sports and horse 4-H programs for the Maryland Extension Service and finish her master’s online.
She had been researching diabetes alert service dogs for several years and found out about Heads Up Hounds on Facebook. Jamie Cook, co-owner and trainer at Heads Up Hounds, told her about the Cosmopolitan Club’s program offering assistance, and that led to her request for a dog.
“I just wanted something extra to keep me safe in a new state, and my parents kind of did, too,” she said.
Currently, her dad is just 30 miles away, if she needs help.
“My dad comes to every doctor’s appointment with me,” which is every three months, she said.
The program is rewarding for club members, Treadway said.
“It’s a good feeling for us to help these people — and we’re just getting started,” he said.
At this point, the club is accepting applications from residents all the way from Des Moines to Grand Island, Nebraska.
For more information, to donate or to download a Paws Saving Lives grant application form, visit the club’s website at cbcosmos.org.