Service dog trained to recognize owner's seizures
FITCHBURG >> Up until the moment her dog saved her life, Lorelei McClure had been living through a normal day.
It was in the fall of 2014, she had been driving down Lindell Avenue in Leominster on her way to Watertower Plaza. Her dog, Prince Charming, was in the seat next to her.
But then things began to drift away from her and she started to go into a catatonic state. The next thing she knew, Prince Charming was nipping at her arm.
"It woke me up just before we had a head-on collision with a MART van," McClure said.
Prince Charming's actions weren't a lucky coincidence or a moment of divine intervention. He was actually just doing his job: Prince Charming is a service dog trained to recognize when people are experiencing seizures.
Prince Charming is a bichon frise, which means he is basically a 10-inch-tall, 8-pound living ball of cotton with fluffy white hair and black eyes. He might not look like most service dogs, but McClure said that he has saved her on multiple occasions.
As far back as 1990, McClure began experiencing severe migraines on a regular basis. Over the following decades, her condition continued to worsen and doctors were able to give her little in the form of answers.
"They really still don't know what it is that's causing all of this," she said. "I had an undiagnosed neurological issue where they still don't know what's going on."
Things took a particularly frightening turn for the worse in June 2009.
"I went in to take a shower and when I came out, I went into another episode," she said.
For the first time, McClure was experiencing what is known as transient global amnesia, a neurological disorder involving temporary but almost total disruption of short-term memory with a range of problems accessing older memories.
"I remembered my family, but I couldn't remember things like the fact that my son was in the Navy at the time," she said. "I didn't know what day it was, I didn't know who the president was, I couldn't answer the normal cognitive questions I was being asked."
McClure was able to recover and regain her memories within 24 hours, but a second, more severe amnesia attack that next April took an even greater toll.
Her worsening condition meant that McClure could no longer work at her job as a bank examiner and she began to come to terms with losing her independence.
"I couldn't drive, I couldn't go anywhere without a family member or a friend next to me," she said. "I couldn't remember how to get anywhere."
Apart from the amnesia, she was also experiencing seizures.
"It's not the fall on the floor epileptic seizures everyone expects," McClure said. "It might just be that I'll be talking to you and then I go and doze off or I might look like some drunken person walking down the street not knowing where they're going."
While her doctors were unable to give much of an answer in the way of what was causing all of her neurological ailments, they were able to come up with a possible solution.
"The neurologist, and my therapist, and all my doctors were all saying 'You really should have a support dog,"' she said.
But there was one problem with that suggestion.
"I'm allergic to dogs," McClure said.
However, with the help of some research she was able to learn about Bichon Frises, which are capable of detecting seizures and hypoallergenic. She was eventually able to find a breeder in Georgia and soon had a dog shipped up to her.
"My husband and I went up to Manchester Airport (in New Hampshire) on May 10, our wedding anniversary, at midnight to get him off the plane," McClure said.
"He came out of the cage and he came over to me. I said 'Hi,' but had to tell him I wasn't his human," said McClure's husband, Robert. "He then went over to her and that's how it's been ever since."
Prince Charming had to go through obedience training in order to become certified as a serving dog, as well as training in seizure detection and symptom recognition.
"He alerts me if he notices that my behavior is changing. He will go into a deep bark and will pull me toward a safe place," McClure said.
Having Prince Charming around has since brought back some of the freedoms McClure lost through her condition.
She now drives, though she doesn't go beyond a 5-mile radius of her house and never drives at night. She's also been able to return to work and has been employed as an administrative assistant in the specialized education department of the Sizer School for the last year.
McClure said, "The kids love him... He's not trained for it, but he'll sense when a student comes into student services who might be emotionally upset."
When this happens, McClure said Prince Charming will often leave her office and seek out students who might be emotionally distraught.
"I'll find him sitting there right next to the student and they'll be petting him," she said.
While Prince Charming's job is to look after McClure, he's also paying attention to other members of the family, like the time her husband was experiencing a heart attack at the Worcester Court House last year.
"I was not in the same area, but (Prince Charming) kept trying to pull me over to where my husband was," she said.
"It's definitely been an impact. Everywhere we go we take the dog with us," said Robert McClure. "He does a good job, he earns his keep."