PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — It has been a little more than a month since 8-year-old Angel Parsons met the service dog that her grandmother, Debbie Kinney, believed would change her life.
In that short time, Kinney has realized she was right.
“I have seen a huge change in Angel since she got Prada,” Kinney said Wednesday, referring to the 1-year-old golden retriever-Labrador retriever mix dog that is trained to alert people when the 8-year-old is having a seizure. “I noticed a change in her right away. Prada brings a sense of normalcy to her life, and she does a great deal to help me keep Angel safe.”
Bangor Daily News readers were introduced to Angel last year when the girl’s family and friends set out to raise the $15,000 needed to pair her with a service dog.
The 8-year-old suffers from mitochondrial disease, which affects the ability of cells in the body to function. According to the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation, there are many different types of the disease that result from failures of the mitochondria, specialized compartments present in every cell of the body except red blood cells.
Mitochondria are responsible for creating more than 90 percent of the energy needed by the body to sustain life and support growth, according to UMDF. When mitochondria fail, less and less energy is generated within the cell, leading to cell injury and cell death. If this process is repeated throughout the body, whole systems begin to fail, and the life of the affected person is severely compromised.
Angel Parsons was born prematurely and began suffering from focal seizures, a heart murmur and other troubling symptoms when she was very young. She began having difficulty performing some tasks, showed a frequent lack of awareness of danger and had a tendency to get upset and anxious in public.
She was diagnosed with the disease after seeing a variety of doctors and specialists.
Kinney is her granddaughter’s legal guardian and wants her to have as normal a life as possible. Angel’s doctors told her she could benefit from a service dog, and family and friends of the child quickly set out last year to raise the $15,000 needed to make that happen.
A number of strangers became supporters in August 2009, the Bangor Daily News reported Kinney’s effort. Kinney said readers sent money and some even set out on their own to raise funds for Angel’s dog. The family eventually collected enough to travel to Ohio in September to pick up the animal from 4 Paws for Ability Inc., an organization that provides service dogs across the globe to people with disabilities.
Kinney said Prada is trained in seizure alert and can sense when the 8-year-old is going to have a seizure. When that happens, the dog alerts others around Angel and nudges the girl to get into a safe position so she won’t hurt herself. The dog also comforts her when she comes out of the seizure. It is important, Kinney said, as most people don’t even realize when Angel is having one of her seizures. Since Angel still has a tendency to get upset and anxious in public, the dog can interrupt a meltdown, soothe her frustration and keep her safe when she is out in public or at home.
“Prada is with her all of the time,” Kinney said. “She calms her down so quickly. Her trainer [at 4 Paws for Ability] couldn’t believe how fast they bonded. Angel loves this dog right to death.”
Kinney said Prada also is trained in search and rescue should they ever get separated. Kinney said she always has to watch her granddaughter carefully, as she will bolt out of rooms and stores and is unaware of how dangerous her actions can be. Kinney said Angel ran out of her classroom more than once last year, and the teachers didn’t know where she went.
“With Prada tethered to her, that doesn’t happen,” Kinney said. “It is a huge relief to me. I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders, physically and mentally.”
While most of the process has gone smoothly, Kinney said, she has been frustrated with what she called the “procrastination” of officials in the SAD 1 school district. Angel attends Pine Street Elementary School, and while the family has been back from Ohio since Sept. 27, Angel has not yet been allowed to bring Prada to school with her.
“They knew that Angel was getting this dog and that it would be coming to school with her,” Kinney said Wednesday. “But they called me while we were in Ohio and told me that I couldn’t bring the dog to school until some issues were worked out. We’ve had the dog with us everywhere — in stores, at the recreation center — with no problem. SAD 1 has been the biggest hurdle.”
Kinney said school officials told her they had to figure out a plan regarding how to incorporate the dog into classes while dealing with students who may be allergic to or fearful of dogs. Kinney said she grew so frustrated that she contacted the state’s Disability Rights Center for assistance.
Kristin Aiello, an attorney for the DRC, said Thursday that schools are required by law to allow students with disabilities to use service animals.
Mary Guerrette, the school district’s special education director, said Wednesday afternoon that the issue has now been settled, and parents have been informed via letter that a service dog soon will be in the school.
“It seems simple, but we just wanted to be thorough,” she explained. “This is the first experience we’ve had with this type of request. We need to look out for the issues of all of our children, such as allergies and fears, so as not to create new issues.”
Guerrette said school officials would have one more meeting with Kinney to determine exactly when the dog would be allowed to school with Angel. She said it would happen “soon.”
Kinney said Thursday that she had just been informed of the school’s decision. She said she is thankful that Angel will have Prada by her side all the time.
“This is going to really enhance her quality of life,” she said. “That is all I want for her. I want her to have just as normal a life as everyone else, and Prada is going to help make that happen.”