For me, dogs have always been how I keep my mental health in check. I work as a Forensic Biologist so I tend to see the not so nice side of life. Despite terrible and confronting days, coming home to a dog always put a smile on my face and forces me out of the house and in to nature. Akela is the second German Shepherd I have owned and I named him after a character from the Jungle Book. For those of you who know your Disney or Rudyard Kipling, Akela was the head of the wolfpack who saved Mowgli’s life. Little did I know how incredibly fitting this name would become…
My story starts long before Akela’s parents were even alive.
It was a Thursday in 2007 and I had left University to go home and go on a run (warning: cardio is dangerous kids!). I approached an intersection and I thought I had looked for any cars or motorbikes on the roadway. I began running and all of a sudden felt an intense amount of force hit me from the left side, I began hitting the road time and time again. It felt like an eternity before I finally stopped moving. When I realised what had happened I tried to move but nothing worked, I didn’t feel pain at this time, just confusion and fear. I remember screaming for someone to help me. Eventually people rushed to help me and I was taken to Hospital. After this point came a long recovery – I had to essentially learn how to walk again, my body was covered in gravel rash from top to bottom and every time I closed my eyes I replayed what happened.
I am insanely lucky to be surrounded by amazing friends and family who made the recovery process as painless as possible. Eventually, it all became a distant memory. Although I still had issues with the right-hand side of my body, I hid my symptoms well. From 2007 to today I had one obvious residual symptom; intense contractions of the muscles in my right hand. These would occur sporadically for a couple of days and reoccur 4 to 5 times a year – doctors told me it was just some residual nerve damage, and I believed them.
Flash forward to September 2017. Akela was a year old and I was loving life with him. I had met some amazing people through his training and I was enjoying bonding with him and getting to know his personality. During early September I had a cluster of the hand contractions, but this time, this time they were different. Something told me it wasn’t normal but I ignored it.
Akela didn’t ignore it. Akela was constantly in my face, when I would push him away he would become agitated and whinge constantly. If we went for a drive he would be so heavily in my face I would have to pull the car over because I couldn’t see. I kept telling him to piss off, but he wouldn’t listen; he had something to tell me and he wasn’t stopping until I acknowledged what he had to say.
I won’t lie, during this time I was pissed off at him, I couldn’t have a second alone without him violently sniffing every inch of my face. I was done, I wanted him to calm down and leave me alone. To this day I wish I had headed his warning.
On 5th September 2017 I was at work when one of the hand contractions started, but it suddenly moved up my entire arm. I felt every single muscle in my arm start to contract (apparently at this time I was screaming every profanity I could think of - unsurprising for those who know me!). Things then went black. Next thing I remember was waking up to my colleagues and paramedics standing over me telling me I had just had a tonic/clonic seizure. I apparently stopped breathing for the whole 70 seconds during the seizure, but thankfully started breathing on my own once it was done. I was cleared at the Hospital of any major contributing factors (ie: tumours or spinal cord issues) and was discharged home. After some investigation my Neurologist came to the conclusion those hand contractions I had been having weren’t actually nerve damage, they were focal seizures. For over 10 years I had been misdiagnosed.
I live alone and after the seizure I was petrified I would have another. What if I didn’t start breathing on my own? What if I fell and hit my head? What if this killed me one day? What if, what if, what if. I was so scared, but I hid it from my loved ones because I knew they were scared too.
Then I remembered – Akela knew what was about to happen. He knew something wasn’t right. So, being the scientist that I am, I did some research. Turns out, in a few cases, in the days leading up to a seizure some epileptics will have detectable sugar drops (similar to a diabetic). Dogs can detect these drops through the eyes and the mouth. Fuck. Akela was trying desperately to tell me I was going to have a seizure and I wrote him off. I ignored him. I wished I could go back in time and reward him for that behaviour – tell him he is the goodest of boys for protecting me.
Flash forward to today. Every day since the seizure, Akela checks the sugars in my eyes and mouth around 4 to 5 times a day. I reward him every damn time. Despite being medicated I can still feel when I would be seizing and the medication is stopping it. Without fail, Akela gets up in my face and starts whinging. And without fail, I reward him and tell him he is the goodest boy there ever was! What is important to note is that this is something Akela does of his own volition, I have never shaped the behaviour, he just does it. As I write this, my hand felt funny, which made me panic. I went straight to Akela. He smelt my face and went back to sleep with a “bitch you’re fine” kind of attitude! I came back to my computer knowing I was safe. That alone makes me tear up as I write this. We don’t deserve dogs.
For those of you who don’t know much about seizures, I invite you to go to the Epilepsy Australia website and read up about it. There are so many misconceptions about how to deal with a person having a tonic/clonic seizure (ie: don’t put stuff in our mouth unless you want your damn finger bitten off!). People also get weird when you speak about seizures, they feel sorry for you and don’t know how to act because its technically a disability. In my case, I had a literal brain fart and everything returned to normal after. I would like to start more of a conversation around epilepsy so people aren’t so afraid of it, and so that we as sufferers don’t feel scared to talk about it like it’s not a normal part of our lives. The medication is also messed up, neuromodulators aren’t a fun ride. Seizures don’t stop affecting our lives once they are done, they are a continual journey. But that doesn’t mean you need to be scared about asking us about them – I will happily tell the tale of my seizure day after day, because it makes me stronger and it gets us all talking.
So there it is. The story of my kick ass, seizure detecting, sissy cripple monster (why sissy cripple monster? Well….that’s a story for another day!).