NORTH LIBERTY — Riding her plastic rocking horse on Friday next to her stuffed giraffe and clad in pink cowboy boots, Vivi Russo appeared to be your typical adorable toddler. And with a star chart taped to the wall rewarding her 2-year-old’s accomplishments and a strategy under way for getting her daughter out of diapers, Becky Russo appeared to be your typical single mother.
But the 25-year-old Russo and her daughter are facing overwhelming challenges that could, at any time, take away Vivi’s mom.
“The thought of going into a coma in the middle of the night — she’s too young to call 911 — that makes me want to cry,” Russo said Friday in her North Liberty home.
Russo’s life changed on May 26, 2011, when she was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. The diagnosis came a year after she delivered her daughter, who weighed in at 11.1 pounds at birth.
“I had undiagnosed gestational diabetes,” Russo said, adding that she returned to the doctor a year later because she felt tired and sick and couldn’t keep on weight.
“They said my blood sugar was at 700,” she said. “At 700, I should have been in a coma.”
Russo’s blood sugar has been wildly unstable since her diagnosis a year ago, spiking and dropping as low as 20 or 30 without warning or consistency. A normal person’s blood sugar levels will test under 140 two hours after a meal, but Russo said her levels will fluctuate far above and below that, and her body is less sensitive to the warning signs.
“Most people will start getting shaky or sweaty,” she said. “But my body, you can’t trust it.”
The scariest moments come at night when Russo goes to sleep, often alone, as her boyfriend is a firefighter who works 24-hour shifts. Her sleep, for more than a year now, has been interrupted by fears that she won’t wake up — that she won’t be there for her daughter in the morning and in the future.
At 3 a.m. on Memorial Day, for example, Russo said she woke up again with fears that her blood sugar was dropping. She was hesitant to get up and test it. When she eventually did, it was at 30.
“If I hadn’t gotten up, I wouldn’t have gotten up in the morning,” she said. “It’s moments like that that terrify me. I almost didn’t get out of bed.”
And that’s why Russo has started a fundraising campaign for a diabetic alert dog. She said she’s tired, literally, of the guessing game. She’s tired of spending sleepless nights worrying about being there for her daughter and then spending groggy days chasing the energetic toddler.
Diabetic alert dogs — most useful to patients who are hypoglycemic unaware, like Russo — are trained to notice when a diabetic’s blood sugar goes too high or too low. The dogs can tell because the body releases a chemical that changes the scent of secretions, like sweat, according to experts in the field.
Some dogs are even trained to fetch glucose tablets or other emergency supplies.
Russo said she’s hopeful that a service animal would change her life by giving her the freedom to focus on her daughter rather than on her blood sugar. But the dogs are not cheap.
They can cost upward of $20,000, and Russo said she’s started fundraising by creating an online account at Tidewater K9 Academy, a Virginia-based service dog training organization with at least one fully trained dog available now. Russo also is planning to ask businesses for sponsorships.
Mark Hackathorn, owner of Tidewater K9 Academy, confirmed that Russo needs about $20,000 for a fully trained dog, which he said can have a life expectancy of between 12 and 14 years. Hackathorn said diabetic alert dogs are a relatively new concept, but he genetically predisposes his puppies to be alert dogs, and he said the animals have an accuracy rate of between 96 percent and 97 percent.
Russo’s boyfriend, Bill Schmooke, 33, is assistant fire chief for the North Liberty Fire Department and a firefighter with the Iowa City Fire Department, but he said he feels powerless to help regardless of whether he’s home or at work.
“Having the dog around would provide her a chance to actually sleep,” Schmooke said. “She could rest for once.”
The animal not only would monitor high and low spikes, but it would help Russo keep her blood sugars in a normal range, adding years to her life, Schmooke said.
“I can’t put myself in her shoes for a second. I can’t imagine going to bed afraid every night,” he said. “It’s a pretty nasty disease.”
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