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‘Pierre Michelle’ has saved the day for this patient more than once

IU Health University Hospital

‘Pierre Michelle’ has saved the day for this patient more than once

If it weren’t for one special shaggy dog, LaDonna Cummins may not be able to tell her remarkable story of surviving the highs and lows of diabetes.

By IU Health Senior Journalist TJ Banes,

There was the time she was spared from driving into a bridge, and then there was the time she was rescued after her car had a flat on a cold and snowy night.

LaDonna Cummins looks back at those scary times and is thankful for her faithful companion, affectionately named, “Pierre Michelle.” The 7-year-old Labradoodle became Cummins’ service dog at the age of 5 months.

Since the age of 17, Cummins has dealt with the highs and lows of brittle diabetes, a type of diabetes that is difficult to manage and can disrupt everyday life. It causes extreme swings in blood sugar. For Cummins, some of those changes were so quick and severe that she feared for her life.

In 2014, she learned about Diabetic Alert Dogs of America. Based in Las Vegas, Nev. the program specially trains dogs to alert diabetic handlers in advance of low (hypoglycemia) or high (hyperglycemia) blood sugar events before they become dangerous. A Diabetic Alert Dog's early detection allows the handler to take the proper steps to return their blood sugar to a normal healthy range.

The dogs attend an intensive 12-week course and must pass an evaluation. The training includes basic obedience, public access exposure and scent detection.

“I got to Vegas and saw 20 puppies. I was told not to play with them so I sat still,” said Cummins. One dog came and sat at her feet and never moved. At one point, when Cummins’ blood sugar dropped to 62, the dog began licking Cummins’ feet.

“That was it. She chose me,” said Cummins, who named the Labradoodle, “Pierre Michelle.” As part of the scent training, Cummins mailed several frozen cotton balls saturated with her saliva to the Nevada training center. Each cotton ball had a different blood sugar level and Pierre Michelle was trained to detect the high and low glucose levels.

“She can fetch an orange juice from the pantry and open the can with her teeth when I get too low,” said Cummins, who turns 60 on October 20th. In one of the scariest episodes, Cummins was driving with Pierre Michelle in the back seat. As Cummins’ blood sugar levels dropped, Pierre Michelle jumped into the front seat and began to paw at her owner to keep her alert. When an ambulance arrived, the 70-pound dog would not allow anyone near Cummins until her owner told her to sit. Before she got the service dog, Cummins said there was one scary accident that landed her car under a gas truck.

Not only is Pierre Michelle a friend to Cummins, but she has grown to love an extended family. Cummins married her husband, Kerry four years ago. Together, they have a blended family of six children, 14 grandchildren, and four great grandchildren.

Not long after Cummins acquired Pierre Michelle, she was listed for a pancreas transplant. In March 2015, in the care of IU Health’s Dr. Jonathan Fridell, she received a new pancreas. Pierre Michelle was again trained to detect the sugar levels of her owner post-transplant. Cummins enjoyed improved health until two years later when she was diagnosed for the second time with breast cancer. Ten years had passed since her first diagnosis. In the care of Dr. Bryan Schneider she underwent radiation. During one of her treatments, Pierre Michelle jumped onboard the bed as Cummins was wheeled down the hospital hall.

It was during her second cancer diagnosis that Cummins was introduced to IU Health’s Cancer Resource Center and CompleteLife Program. Located on the first floor of Simon Cancer Center the programs offer information and education to help cancer patients navigate their cancer journey. Patients also have access to support groups and complimentary yoga, music, art, and massage therapies.

Cummins was given some art materials to help her pass the time in the hospital.

“I found it quiet and peaceful and encouraging. It got me to think of others and I made scarves to donate to other patients,” she said. During a recent checkup she returned to the Cancer Resource Center in hopes of volunteering her time.

And of course she’ll bring Pierre Michelle along on her return hospital visits.

“We’ve been through quite a lot together,” said Cummins. Her faithful companion has accompanied her several times on a plane, aboard a boat on the Florida coast, and always in the car.

“Not only has she gotten me through my share of hospital visits, she too, has had hip replacements and ACL surgery. We’re in it together.”

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