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NI woman praises lifesaving dog and support group in coronavirus fightback

Wendy Smith with assistance dog Echo

A mother living with diabetes credits Echo, her gorgeous golden retriever, and an online peer support group for helping her get better from coronavirus.

Wendy Smith, from East Belfast, contracted the virus last October and is still experiencing its effects, with a loss of taste and smell.

Assistance dog Echo

“Having type 1 diabetes, I was very worried about contracting Covid-19."

Wendy explained: "I knew having diabetes made me more vulnerable to getting sicker than someone else without an underlying health condition. My lips at one stage turned blue and I ended up at the Ulster Hospital, where I was given oxygen. It was a worrying time.”

Wendy uses an insulin pump to help manage her diabetes. During her recovery from a recent infection she started to notice a nasty infection taking hold where her pump was connected to her body.   

She explained; “In November I started to get an infection on my insulin pump site. It started getting very red and hot. After four days on antibiotics, the new site I had moved my insulin pump to had started to swell up too. My whole upper arm went red. I ended up in A&E, ten days on IV antibiotics and then three further weeks on oral antibiotics. I think because Covid-19 had hammered my immune system before it took me a lot longer to get over an infection like that. I don’t think in normal times it would have taken hold so much.”

The mother-of-two didn’t only have to deal with the physical effects of coronavirus but her recovery from the virus coupled with lockdown took a toll on her mental health too.

“I got great support from family but it wasn’t until I got talking to other people with diabetes and someone else who had had Covid as well that I realised I was mentally exhausted,” she said.

The Coleraine native says it was the unconditional love of her ‘working dog’ Echo, 5, and an online peer support group run by charity Diabetes UK NI that helped her through the dark days. Echo is Wendy’s ‘four-legged everyday lifesaver’ as the civil servant has been unable to detect when her blood glucose (sugar) level goes dangerously high or low since a surgical operation some time ago.

When your blood glucose (sugar) level goes too low it causes hypoglycaemia, also known as a hypo, which makes you feel unwell and requires immediate treatment. If your blood glucose (sugar) level is too high it causes hyperglycaemia, also known as a hyper. If left untreated both hypers and hypos can lead to a diabetic coma that can be life-threatening.

Most people living with type 1 diabetes are aware when they are having a hypo so they can take action to bring their blood glucose (sugar) level back to a healthy range.  

Wendy explained; “I started to lose my hypo awareness after the operation, but it was after taking a hypo while driving my car around five years ago that I knew I needed a working dog from Hypo Hounds charity to help me manage my diabetes. I was having up to 15 hypos a week, including some during the night. I have no doubt Echo has saved my life countless times. She’s trained to alert me when my blood sugars go too low or high. She is trained to put her paw on my knee and bark to alert me, or if I’m in bed and Colin (Wendy’s husband) is downstairs she’ll annoy him so he knows to check on me.”

Echo's support

“Echo takes the pressure off the family as they trust her to look after me. She's always great company but I appreciated her even more when I was recovering from Covid-19.

“Echo and the Diabetes UK NI online peer support group definitely helped me cope. This was the first time I got involved in a peer support group with other people with type 1 diabetes. I liked the way the groups are divided up for people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes. I think that’s a great idea because there are so many misconceptions out there around type 1 diabetes.”

Wendy added; “I get comments about how my diabetes will go away if I just go on a diet which of course is not the case. So many people don’t have the understanding, so it’s great to get together with people who can empathise with your situation.

“I got such benefit talking to people and seeing different faces on the screen. It did my mental wellbeing the power of good. We had a laugh as well as discussing the more serious side of diabetes. I didn’t realise I would get so much of a lift from it or how mentally exhausted I was recovering from Covid before I got talking to people who were in a similar position.”

Making connections in lockdown via online support group

Wendy says lockdown has given her a new appreciation of what other people living with diabetes go through when they have little support or are isolated.

“People who haven’t got anybody at home or any family that they can talk to can feel very isolated. The online peer support sessions encourage people to talk about issues connected with their diabetes that perhaps they have never talked about before, so it encourages people to take that first step.

“It was great chatting to people who understood your worries and concerns. I would thoroughly recommend it.”

And now super cute zoom loving Echo is bringing a smile back to others living with diabetes during lockdown, by gate-crashing the online peer support sessions that are funded thanks to the National Lottery Community Fund NI.

“She loves the camera and seeing other people, so she’s started to pop up in the zoom sessions beside me,” laughed Wendy.

The five-year-old’s pooch’s remarkable lifesaving abilities don’t end with Wendy. The golden retriever proved she’s some pup by saving fellow canine Max recently when she donated blood to the critically ill terrier that was suspected of having been accidentally poisoned.

“Echo gave Max a blood donation and she’s recovering well. Echo really is an extraordinary dog, I’m lucky to have her.”

Type 1 diabetes is a serious condition where your blood glucose (sugar) level is too high because your body can’t make a hormone called insulin. Type 1 diabetes is treated by daily insulin doses – taken either by injections or via an insulin pump. No one knows exactly what causes it, but it’s not to do with being overweight and it isn’t currently preventable.

The next online peer support group for people living with type 2 diabetes will start on Wednesday, 24 February at 7.30pm and will run for five weeks. To register for the type 1 or type 2 peer support groups email nivolunteer@diabetes.org.uk

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