Retriever on alert to warn of seizures, provide comfort

Kelley Sperry talks to her seizure-response dog, Kobi, in Huntley on June 13, 2013. Sperry received Kobe with financial assistance from the Chelsea Hutchinson Foundation in January of 2013.
Kelley Sperry talks to her seizure-response dog, Kobi, in Huntley on June 13, 2013. Sperry received Kobe with financial assistance from the Chelsea Hutchinson Foundation in January of 2013.

When Kelley Sperry falls, Kobi's there.

He'll try to ease her to the floor, lick her face, cuddle up by her. 

The golden retriever brings her medication, drinks when she's thirsty and anything she's dropped. But most of all, he brings her security and love.

"Before this, Kelley was very depressed," said her mother, Donna. "He gave her a reason to to get up and get moving."

The family stayed recently with Kelley's grandmother, Ann MacVeagh, in Huntley as Kelley recovered from her latest treatment at University of Wisconsin Hospital. With Kobi curled at her feet, Kelley pointed out her leg twitching.

"That could turn into a grand mal seizure," said the 21 year old, who has epilepsy as a result of  Parry Romberg Syndrome. Rare, the syndrome causes a slow, progressive degeneration of the soft tissue on half of Kelley's face.

She's had numerous reconstructive facial surgeries over the past six years at the Madison, Wis., hospital. After the surgeries, she stays with MacVeagh in Sun City.

"Grandma's house is like our hub, a place to heal and relax," Donna said.

As a result of the syndrome, Kelley sometimes has three to five of the grand mal seizures, which involve a loss of consciousness, and up to 40 focal, or partial, seizures a day. 

Since January, Kobi has been there to sense and recognize the seizures and to warn Kelley's mother. Kelley has fallen out of a shower, shattered a mirror in her bedroom and broken a kitchen cabinet with her shoulder. 

Kobi knows how to ring doorbells stationed throughout the house to alert others to Kelley's seizures.

If the seizures happen during the night, Donna can move the pillows away from Kelley's face, talk her through them. 

Until Kobi, Kelley slept with her mother, about a foot from her face.

"It's that dangerous for her to be alone," Donna said. "I think the most important thing [Kobi] does is provide another set of eyes for us."

The family, which calls Windsor, Colo., home, wants to raise awareness of how dogs like Kobi can help. They've become advocates for the Chelsea Hutchison Foundation, which helped pair Kobi with Kelley.

Julie and Doug Hutchison created the foundation after the death of their daughter, Chelsea, who died in her sleep during a seizure at age 16. The couple wasn't aware at the time that Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy existed, and now wants to make other parents aware.

They've also worked with therapy dog groups to link up the dogs to those in need. 

Many don't realize how life-changing the dogs can be and often assume service dogs are solely for the blind. 

Kelley's been mistaken as blind so many times she recently bought a T-shirt that says, "No, I'm not blind," on the front. The back says, "He's my seizure dog."

She speaks in support of the foundation when needed, shares her story as often as she can.

"I just feel so strongly about her foundation. Her child died and she picked right up . . ." she said of Julie Hutchison. "You would never know. She always has a smile on her face. She works to raise money so others can have dogs. I'm right on board with her. That's my dream, to be just like her."

The dogs can cost about $20,000 more or less. Though efforts are made by nonprofit organizations to help pay for the cost, families must raise as much money as they can, as well.

Because Donna gave up her job to care for Kelley, the family wasn't sure they'd be able to afford a dog.

Two of Kelley's friends, Brittany Perich and Lindsey Wittal, stepped in and hosted a silent auction to help the family raise about $6,000.

Kobi is now constantly at Kelley's side, no matter where she goes. The dog has learned to sense when seizures might be coming and nudges Kelley or leans his body up against her. 

The epilepsy has become consuming. Typically, those with seizures are told to go to the hospital after they have a few in a day. 

"If [Kelley] did that, she would live at the hospital," Donna said.

For Kelley, more than 30 seizures a day trigger a hospital stay. The ambulance has been called to the family's home at least 30 times. Kelley takes about 30 pills a day, and she's continually trying new mixes of medications to ease the seizures.

As for the syndrome, there's not much more that can be done. Any further efforts to rebuild the side of her face would require extensive surgery, the actual breaking of bones in her cheeks. 

"Now seizures are our priority," Donna said. 

The seizures and Kobi, who like a toddler, Kelley said, needs to be dressed, played with and trained every day. He wears a sort of vest that tells people of his service dog duties.

Though it's tough some days, she continues to follow her grandmother's advice to get up every day and put on her makeup, even if she has no plans to see anyone that day.

Sometimes, she admits, she has days when she wants to be alone, when she'd like some space. But she can't imagine life without Kobi.

"I love him to death," she said, giving him a squeeze.

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