Boston Globe: A woman’s best friend, and lifesaver

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Dog can warn of fainting

By Bella English, Globe Staff  |  July 1, 2007

As Marty Harris walked into the South End building where she keeps her car, her dog, Adele, began to act funny. She sniffed and nuzzled Harris’s knees, then sat down and refused to budge. That was Harris’s alert that she was in danger of fainting. So Harris kept her end of the bargain: She sat down and waited.

It happened several times, Harris following Adele’s signals to stop and sit. A walk to the security desk that would take most people 30 seconds took Harris 30 minutes. At one point, Adele jumped up and placed her paws on Harris’s chest, the dire warning that means “lie down immediately.” While people in business attire rushed by, Harris lay on the marble floor. Adele promptly lay across her.

“I was there for two hours before she’d let me up,” says Harris, 36. “She was staring at me like, ‘You better not move.’ It’s really embarrassing, but it’s better than fainting in front of everyone and being rolled out in an ambulance.”

Harris suffers from a chronic fainting disorder caused by an irregular heartbeat. Adele, a black Labrador retriever, is her heart service dog, trained to alert its owner about an impending problem. The agency that placed Adele with Harris has placed only one other heart alert dog, and the director says she knows of no others in the country.

Though dogs have long been trained to help disabled people, Harris called dozens of agencies before she found one that had placed a dog with a heart patient. Canine Partners for Life in Pennsylvania met with Harris and her family and spoke with her doctor before deciding to offer her a dog. The nonprofit agency spends $22,000 to obtain, train, and board each dog. It takes two years to socialize and train them to follow commands such as fetching cellphones and wallets, opening doors, pulling cargo, and helping with other tasks. Then, the recipients spend three weeks on campus working with their dog and trainers. The agency asks for a donation — Harris paid $900 — to help offset the costs.

In a role reversal, it is the heart dog who tells the human what to do: stop, sit, lie down. Adele acts as Harris’s early-warning system, perhaps by scent or sound. She knows — before Harris does — when Harris is about to faint. Adele’s job is to alert her to sit or lie down. The dog will give a signal — nudging Harris, halting, sitting — that tells Harris she needs to rest. When Adele senses the danger of fainting has passed, she lets Harris resume her activities.

“My dog,” says Harris, “is the boss of me.” Since she got Adele, she has not fainted once.

At last, a diagnosis

Until a year, ago, Harris was a chronic fainter. As a child, she would faint in school and on playing fields. Medical tests revealed nothing wrong and preventive heart medications did not help. A psychiatrist told her it was all in her head.

“I felt useless for a long time,” says Harris, an artist who paints in the loft apartment she shares with her husband and son. “I was scared to go anywhere alone.”

During her wedding, she had to stop halfway down the aisle, eliciting gasps from family and friends. “Half thought I was going to faint, and the other half thought I was going to run,” says Harris, laughing. Her worst moment came when she fainted in front of her 4-year-old son and his preschool class. She awoke in an ambulance.

“I saw what I was doing to my son, and I had no control over it,” Harris says.

Her condition worsened. She was fainting weekly, then daily, and suffering concussions. Her husband, Jeff, who teaches at Lexington High School, would have to leave his job to pick her up at the hospital. “It was nerve- racking,” he says. Both he and their son , Ethan, now 8, were afraid to leave her home alone.

Harris was finally referred to Dr. James Januzzi, director of the cardiac intensive care unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, who diagnosed her with severe neurocardiogenic syncope. Harris, he says, has one of the most extreme cases he has seen. “She was often fainting in public, getting admitted to the hospital frequently, and was fainting almost daily,” he says.

Januzzi had exhausted all medical options. Blood pressure medications, plasma expanders, beta – blockers — nothing helped her condition.

One night, Harris saw a television program about golden retrievers that could detect cancer in people before an actual diagnosis. It got her thinking: Could a dog help her?

Mysteries of dogs

Through research, she found dogs for all sorts of ailments but not for heart issues. She finally tracked down Canine Partners for Life, which had offered a service dog to one other heart patient. The agency provides dogs for people with disabilities such as muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and seizure disorders. Harris was on a waiting list for several months. And then she went to Pennsylvania for what she calls “doggy boot camp,” training with Adele and staff members eight hours a day for three weeks.

No one really knows how dogs such as Adele do it. The theories are that the dog picks up a change in scent or behavior. “We believe there are chemical changes going on in a person’s body” before an episode , says Darlene Sullivan, founder and executive director of Canine Partners for Life . “We don’t have any scientific proof. It’s just a natural instinct. It’s one of the mysteries of dogs.”

Hard as it is to believe, Harris’s doctor thinks the key might be the dog’s hearing. “Since it is well recognized that the usual trigger for neurocardiogenic syncope is a fast heartbeat, it is likely that the dog is sensing Marty’s tachycardia and warning her,” Januzzi says. “Having said that, I have no idea how [Adele] is doing it, but the results speak for themselves. Marty’s quality of life is better, she’s more confident, and all in all I think it’s darn near miraculous.”

Harris believes it is a combination of scent and hearing, but she does not really know how Adele does what she does: “Sometimes you don’t question the gift; you just accept it.”

At the owner-dog training in Pennsylvania, it is on-the-job learning for both human and canine. While in session, many owners have seizures or, in Harris’s case, faint. The dog, through positive reinforcement, bonds so closely with its owner that it learns how to recognize symptoms and is taught various signals to alert its owner: licking, nuzzling, sitting, or lying down.

“It’s like having a permanent dance partner,” Harris says. “At first, we would trip all over each other, but now we have our dance moves mastered.” Adele alerts her as many as 20 times a day, and has taught Harris to slow down and relax. She is even trained to lift a prone Harris’s legs up with her muzzle so that the blood gets to her heart faster. She can pull Harris up stairs and help steady her going down. If Harris does faint, Adele is trained to retrieve her cellphone for the 911 call.

Worker and companion

A leather dog lead hooks on to Harris’s belt, and Adele wears saddlebags across her back to carry all sorts of things, including Harris’s cellphone, wallet — and dog treats. Harris makes it clear that Adele is not a pet, “though I love her.” She is a working dog and is not supposed to be distracted. Even Jeff and Ethan are not allowed to play with her.

Adele goes everywhere Marty goes: Fenway Park, restaurants, stores, the T. They took her to a wedding last summer, where she “danced” at the reception between Jeff and Marty.

If Harris feels faint in a store, Adele helps her pay, placing a credit card, which she holds in her teeth, on the counter for the startled clerk. She picks laundry off the floor, piece by piece, and carries it to Harris, who throws it in the machine. When the load is dry, she pulls it out of the machine and takes it back to Harris. “She doesn’t fold,” Harris says, laughing. But she does drag the full basket from laundry room to bedroom. All of this prevents Harris from stooping or bending, which can cause her to faint.

In the middle of the night, Adele accompanies Harris to the bathroom and back to bed, staring at her intently for several minutes before finally settling into sleep herself.

On a recent day, Harris had just left her apartment when Adele began to nuzzle at her knees. She found a bench and sat. This start-and-stop went on for nearly an hour, until Harris finally reached her garage. She is a lot slower than she used to be. But she’s not complaining. “Adele,” she says, “gave me my life back.”

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Sunday, July 1, 2007