By Dr. Becker
Seven year-old Kaelyn Krawczyk, known as KK, has had a severe form of mastocytosis since she was two months old. Mastocytosis is a group of rare disorders of both children and adults caused by the presence of too many mast cells. The disease has a broad range of symptoms and levels of severity. In Kaelyn’s case, it can cause allergic reactions to common everyday things like heat, exercise, and certain medicines. Her allergic response can quickly escalate to anaphylaxis or fatal shock.
KK must be monitored throughout the night, because something as simple as getting overheated during sleep can potentially lead to a reaction that causes a fall down the stairs, unconsciousness, or worse.
Fortunately, Kaelyn has a very close four-legged ally to help her cope with her disease. Her name is JJ, and she’s a terrier mix who can sense an allergic reaction before it happens. JJ can actually smell the cell changes that occur before KK has a serious reaction, and she is trained to alert the Krawcyzk parents that their child needs her medical kit. JJ is also trained to retrieve the kit, which contains live-saving drugs.
JJ Watches Over Kaelyn During Hospital Procedures
Thanks to the mastocytosis, little Kaelyn has frequent kidney infections that require trips to the hospital. Her doctors have learned that the dye used in surgical procedures and chemicals in anesthesia drugs can trigger severe allergic reactions in their little patient.
"One of the things we know is that she is at high risk for anesthesia," says KK’s mom. "She had a really bad reaction coming out of it in the past. She was really flushed and her blood pressure was low and she had shortness of breath."
In December, Kaelyn was scheduled for exploratory kidney surgery. Her doctors at Duke University Medical Center decided to allow JJ’s trainer to bring the dog into the operating room so she could alert the anesthesiologist if she sensed an oncoming allergic reaction. The surgical team could then immediately administer medication to prevent KK’s reaction from becoming life-threatening.
According to Dr. Brad Taicher, KK’s anesthesiologist, “Knowing what JJ could do, we realized that JJ was not much different from other monitors we use.”
When JJ was just a month into her training program, she responded to one of KK’s worst episodes. First she licked JJ to get her up. The cardiac monitors were still recording normal activity, but KK told her mom that she felt like there was a ball in her throat. What was actually happening was swelling in the child’s throat, which could quickly block her airway. Four long minutes after JJ alerted the Krawczyks, the monitors started to change.
In surgery, it works the same way. JJ alerts the staff before all their high tech monitors do. According to Mrs. Krawczyk, “It makes believers out of those who didn’t believe and confirmed those who did. JJ was a better indicator of when things are starting to go wrong than all the monitors.”
JJ Was Once a Shelter Dog
JJ was living in an animal shelter when her trainer, Deb Cunningham, program director of a non-profit service dog agency, arrived at the facility to look at Golden Retrievers. The kennel manager suggested she meet JJ. Cunningham had never trained a terrier as a service dog, and her agency wasn’t really in the habit of working with shelter dogs. But she did a temperament test with JJ, and the dog did very well.
JJ went home with Cunningham and spent nine months learning to be a diabetic alert dog. At the same time, the Krawczyks were looking for a service dog to help Kaelyn, and called Cunningham, who had experience in training dogs in scent work. Cunningham wondered if mastocytosis emitted a scent, so she asked Kaelyn’s mom to swab her mouth and set aside items of clothing the child had worn during a reaction so she could train JJ to pick up the scent of her saliva and sweat.
According to Cunningham, JJ has surpassed all expectations for what an alert dog can do. Not only does she alert for Kaelyn, but she also alerted someone else in the Krawcyzk’s circle who didn’t know she had diabetes, which prompted the woman to see a doctor.
With JJ By Her Side, Kaelyn Attends School
Kaelyn, who doctors once believed would not be able to attend school due to her disease, now goes to classes with JJ by her side. Mrs. Krawcyzk also tags along and works at her online job from a desk in KK’s classroom.
Because JJ is so sensitive, Kaelyn’s mom can let her do all the things she likes to do until the dog alerts her it’s time to stop.
Kaelyn’s disease will be with her for the rest of her life, but according to her mom, “JJ has given KK a new lease on life and the ability to lead a normal life.”