Click to View Latest IssueClick to View Latest Issue

Carolyn Macan and Gia: A Mother’s Love, a Boy’s Faithful Companion

By  0 Comments

A dog is man’s best friend. There’s no mistaking the special warmth a dog can bring to a household. Whether it’s adding kisses to your face with a sloppy, wet tongue or simply greeting you at the door with a tail that’s wagging a hundred miles an hour, dogs have got it going on when it comes to the attachment they have with humans.

Dogs give light, love, warmth, happiness and security to their masters. For Carolyn Macan, the protection her dog Gia gives is absolutely incredible. The 39-year-old Roeland Park, Kansas, mother says it can be a matter of life or death for her six-year-old son, Bo. Gia is a trained diabetic alert dog, on constant lookout for the highs and lows of his disease, which can bring tragedy.

“Gia makes Bo happy, and he feels safe when she’s around,” shared Carolyn. “If there’s something wrong with Bo’s sugar levels, she alerts me about 20 minutes before his technology sounds an alarm. It’s incredible. She gives us a peace of mind that is far more important than anything else can bring me and our family.”

With a warning that can be as simple as a change in her body language or a tap on the hand, Gia communicates with Carolyn that something is amiss. Immediately, Carolyn springs into action, testing Bo’s sugar levels and then administering the necessary treatment to bring his body back in line.

Unfortunately, Carolyn has been watching and testing Bo nearly his entire life. He and his twin sister, Brooklynn, were born 12 weeks early. While things went well for Brooklynn, Bo has struggled. At the age of eight months, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, which was alarming in its own right but was especially concerning to the Macans because diabetes does not run in either side of the family. Their fear was that something was not right genetically with their precious baby boy. Then his health issues began to snowball.

“He was diagnosed with problem after problem, mostly autoimmune issues. There was one stretch where we spent 66 days straight in the hospital,” Carolyn remarked. “We took him to some of the most prestigious children’s hospitals in the nation trying to find out what was wrong.” Eventually Bo was diagnosed with a condition so rare it’s named after him. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the nation’s medical research agency, has dubbed it Bo’s Syndrome.

“Bo’s immune system just isn’t strong enough to fight illnesses and disease. Not only is he diabetic, he has rheumatoid arthritis, chronic lung disease and suffers seizures,” commented Carolyn. “The NIH in Bethesda, Maryland, is a federally funded hospital and can underwrite the costs of Bo’s treatments and research. We have so many doctors working on him. They’re fascinated by Bo and his disease and understanding why he has it and how to treat it.”

A team of leading doctors across the nation and at KU Med are focused on him. Doctors hold conference calls every other month to understand progress or lack of it when it comes to Bo’s Syndrome. And the costs have been high: 50 surgical procedures, countless appointments, three ports and more than 300 PICC lines to deliver medicine and a massive number of blood draws have taken their toll on Bo and the Macan family. Carolyn is quick to point out how everyone–husband, John, 15-year-old Leksi, 13-year-old Johnny and Bo’s twin, Brooklynn–has pitched in to help care for him. “His three siblings are an amazing support for him,” Carolyn marveled. “They are so very good to him and they never complain. Having a sick brother is not fun.”

And since December 2015, Carolyn has been able to call upon Gia, a mixed-breed rescue dog, to help with Bo’s care. She had heard about diabetic alert dogs and took to the Internet to explore the possibility. “I did a year of research on organizations because there are several out there for diabetic alert dogs,” recalled Carolyn. “I found Heads Up Hounds in Omaha, Nebraska, and the reviews were just amazing. I talked on the phone with Jamie, one of the owners, for nearly three hours and knew I would use them. They will be a part of our lives forever.”

The concept behind Gia and other dogs like her is that they are trained to alert their owners of a hypoglycemic (low)– or hyperglycemic (high)–blood sugar level before it occurs. This extra window of time allows the handler to adjust treatment to bring the patient back into a suitable blood sugar range. To achieve that goal, diabetic alert dogs are trained in a fascinating way.

“Low and high blood sugar levels have unique smells to them as the fluctuation releases chemicals in the body. Humans can’t detect that smell, but a dog can,” stated Carolyn. “To get Gia familiar with his scent, I sent samples of Bo in those particular blood sugar levels to Heads Up Hounds over a period of four months. I’d gather the scent by placing cotton in his mouth, and ship them to Heads Up Hounds.”

When it was time to get their dog, Heads Up Hounds sent the Macans photos via text and email of their caramel-colored Gia. “It was love at first sight,” she laughed, thinking of those first pictures. “Bo wanted a male dog because he wanted to name it Captain America, his favorite hero. But he changed his mind when he saw Gia.”

It took about 15 months and $10,000 of the Macans’ money to get a fully trained Gia. When she was ready to be picked up from Omaha, the Macans completed a full day of training before Bo and Carolyn could touch her. “Once Jamie handed Gia over to us, it was up to us to make it work. But I can say this dog has totally changed my son’s life,” she noted. “When my son can’t get off the couch, she doesn’t get off either. When he is sick, she stays with him and lies on the bed with him, even if that’s in the hospital.”

Typically, Carolyn’s routine is to check Bo’s blood sugar level every two hours, but if something is amiss, Gia is quick to point out the problem. With a gentle tap on Carolyn’s hand, Gia signals that his sugar level is up or down. “She spends so much time with him that she can sense a change in his body. Even though she’s not trained to detect seizures, she’s actually done that before with changes in her body language. Even though she’s still learning, Gia is doing some incredible things. The longer we have her, the more in tune she will be with him.”

While Carolyn is highly trained to work with Gia, she does offer reminders for those who see a service dog in public. “If a dog has a service vest on, don’t pet it because it distracts the dog. Remember, service dogs such as Gia are working and doing their job. Distracting her takes away from Gia’s ability to detect if my son’s blood sugar is rising or dropping. If you do want to pet a service dog, be courteous and ask first.”

With so many health complications, Carolyn says that every day is different for her family and Bo. “We wake up and simply hope for the best,” she reflected. “On a good day, he can act like a normal six year old and go to school. Some days he makes it, and some days he doesn’t. But Gia is always there for him.”

Even though Gia came to the Macans fully trained, the learning never stops for their furry friend. This rescue dog continues to deliver unconditional love, affection and critical awareness of Bo’s health needs, functioning as an essential lifeline for this family.

“It’s a lot of work for me and Gia to carry out this mission. I have to work with her and do drills with her every day,” she shared. “But having her is such incredible peace of mind for the family and for Bo. It’s the best feeling in the world to know that my son has this companion.” ■

To learn more about Gia and Bo, follow them on Facebook at macanithappen or visit Carolyn’s blog at