Three of a Kind
The Story of Carriella, Gaz and Astra
Carriella Starnes is courageous, patient, empathetic, and determined. She developed these traits, honed them to perfection actually, with the help of her four-legged best friend and resident superhero service dog, Gaz.
Gaz has saved her life more times than she can count. A dynamic duo, Carriella and Gaz were an unstoppable force, educating thousands of adults and children about the work of service dogs and the benefits they bring to their handlers, especially those with an “invisible illness.”
A Life-Changing Diagnosis
Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of one, Carriella was also one of the youngest patients to receive an insulin pump, at the age of two. Carriella’s Tandem diabetes pump gives her the insulin she needs every three minutes. But sometimes, even with her pump, her CGM (Continuous Glucose Monitor) and a slew of emergency supplies that she always keeps on hand, there still was a lot of anxiety surrounding her illness.
As Carriella explains, “Type 1 diabetes impacts every day of my life differently, because no two days are ever the same. No matter if I follow the same schedule, and eat the same things, I never see the same results. I also have hypoglycemic unawareness, which means I don’t feel my low blood sugars.
As an active teen trying to live a normal life, Carriella was having trouble dealing with her illness at dance competitions. She says, “I was a competitive dancer for 10+ years. It was part of the reason I began looking at a service dog, because managing diabetes at dance competitions was becoming more difficult and anxiety-inducing by not being able to feel my low blood sugars. I didn’t want to have to stop something I loved.”
A Source of Support
Through her research on how to obtain a service dog, Carriella learned about Canines for Disabled Kids. Receiving a CDK scholarship was a gift in many ways. Carriella says, “Kristin Hartness (Executive Director of CDK) really helped me with the entire process of getting Gaz.”
Carriella continues, “I think my greatest challenge, apart from fundraising, was getting my school to allow him as an accommodation. When my mom and I met with the school counselor and principal about adding my soon-to-be service dog to my 504 plan, they kept making excuses. They said other students might be allergic or afraid. Who would take the dog to the bathroom, or care for him in an emergency?”
“I was so thankful to have met Kristin. She travelled all the way to North Carolina from the CDK offices in Massachusetts. She met with the school and explained the laws very clearly! I remember watching her walk in with her service dog and thinking, “Wow, that’s going to be me.”
After the school met with Kristin, who educated the school on laws governing service dogs, and the program director of the organization who trained Gaz, the stage was set for him to accompany her to school.
A Medical Alert Superstar
According to Carriella, Gaz was “an out of this world diabetic alert dog superstar! He alerted to changes in my blood sugars, both high and low. He could retrieve my glucose kit, a juice from the fridge, or go get another person for help.”
One of those times came when Carriella was sleeping. After being unable to wake her up, he ran to wake up her mother, looking back constantly to make sure she was following him. Carriella’s blood sugar was so low it wouldn’t even read on a glucose meter. Without Gaz’s early morning alert, it is likely that no one would have been awake to sense anything was wrong, and Carriella could have slipped into a coma. Gaz’s presence gives Carriella and her family peace of mind and the ability to sleep peacefully through the night.
Another close call came at one of Carriella’s dance competitions. In the audience with her family, Gaz kept trying to run onstage while Carriella was performing. Even from that distance, Gaz knew that her blood sugar had dropped dangerously low, and he alerted her family.
“Some super heroes fly—mine sits and stays. Gaz is my all-the-time, everywhere best friend,” Carriella said in her speech at Gaz’s service dog graduation. “He has alerted me to [blood sugar spikes and lows] at home, at school, at dance, and even during the craziness of dance competition. He has been my Presidential candidate in civics class, part of my science project, my escort on the homecoming court, my dance partner, the warmer of my feet on cold nights, my reminder to eat, and also the reminder that the road less traveled often results in some amazing scenery.”
A New Chapter
But sadly, even super heroes need to retire. Again, Kristin Hartness and CDK provided Carriella with support and education to help her with the decision to retire Gaz while also assisting in her search for her second service dog, Astra. While the transition was hard, teaching Gaz to be less reliant on Carriella, he’s gradually learned not to alert. But he makes sure that he gets a treats when Astra alerts.
Gaz and his successor, Astra have saved Carriella’s life, and they’ve also inspired her to help others with their service dog needs. Carriella is currently taking classes on training service dogs to do medical alert, mobility and other tasks. She would love start a service dog organization that would focus on coaching clients who would like to owner train their service dogs.
Carriella’s greatest dream is devoting her life to helping clients from the day their pup is born until the day their pup retires. With Carriella’s courage, empathy, patience and dedication, and the help of Gaz and Astra, there is nothing this terrific trio can’t do.
By Janis D. Gioia, MAEd.
~ Janis Gioia is an author and content creator who writes for organizations supporting children and adults with disabilities and mental health challenges. Her website, www.comfortinganxiouschildren.com shares resources to help children with anxiety and autism spectrum disorders.