As four-year-old Hadley Jo Lange ran, jumped and played, Ariel, her chocolate brown Labradoodle puppy chased after her.It’s a typical childhood scene.
But their relationship is anything but typical: This playful puppy — a service dog trained to detect epileptic seizures — may one day save this little girl’s life.
Heather Lange, Hadley Jo’s mother, said Ariel the dog — bred and trained to be a seizure dog for Hadley Jo — was purchased for $20,000 thanks to fundraising efforts by parishioners of St. Patrick Church in Eastwood, where the Lange family belong.
Hadley Jo was diagnosed with epilepsy almost two years ago, when she was 16-months-old, said Lange. “It hit us out of no where,” she said, recalling the first seizure her daughter experienced. They were out having dinner, Hadley Jo sitting on her mom’s lap, when the child’s little body started convulsing, her breath seizing.
“I thought I’d lost her,” Lange said during a recent interview.
Hadley Jo’s illness threw the Lange family into a tailspin as doctors tried to determine what was wrong, said Lange. Months dragged by before doctors at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center found that “abnormal brain waves” were causing little Hadley Jo to have seizures.
“My heart froze,” said Lange, recalling the day she found out. Her next thought, she said, was “What can we do about it?”
The answer came one day while Hadley Jo was at her babysitter’s house. A big German Shepherd, owned by the sitter’s son, was acting out of the ordinary — walking around Hadley Jo, trying to pull her unto the floor, said Lange. She believes the dog detected the onset of a seizure and was trying to get Hadley Jo safely to the floor before the convulsions could knock her down.
That moment was like a light bulb going off, said Lange. “That was a turning point.”
She immediately started researching service animals, she said. Breeders and trainers of service dogs look for animals that have a greater natural ability to bond with children, are friendly and intelligent — like Labradoodles, said Lange. The trainers then oversee a process of bonding between the child and the dog. When they’ve bonded sufficiently, the connection between the two allows the dog to detect the onset of a seizure. The dog’s reaction, such as circling the child, lets the parent know that a seizure is coming.
These dogs are also trained to gently tug children experiencing a seizure to the ground, breaking a fall that can lead to injuries, said Lange.
“If a service dog can break a fall when she has a seizure, it can save her life in a way I can’t,” said Lange. “I can give her all the love, but the dog senses something we don’t have the ability to as humans.”
Lange knew immediately she wanted one of these dogs for Hadley Jo, but the $20,000 price tag made it seem impossible to achieve. The mother of two was determined to find a way.
When parishioners at St. Patrick Church found out, Lange said, they wasted no time in responding. A group of women helped her set up bake sales, hold raffles and sell T-shirts and bracelets and set up donation booths at fish fries. The community beyond St. Patrick offered support, too.
In less than six months last year, Lange said they’d raised the $20,000 necessary to purchase Ariel.
“I can never say ‘thank you’ enough to the people in this community,” she said, recalling how complete strangers came out to support them. “This whole community has saved my daughter’s life.”
Deacon Gregory Gitschier, one of the deacons at St. Patrick Church, said he knew he wanted to help after seeing Hadley Jo having a seizure while the family was at a fish fry at the church last year. Gitschier described what he saw as “extremely scary” and, as a former police officer and emergency medical technician, he felt he needed to help the family. He’d known little Hadley Jo was struggling with the illness, but he didn’t realize “how serious” it was, he said, until that day.
“I saw how upset her mom was. It really opened my eyes to their challenge,” he said.
Deacon Gitschier said he used his knowledge of service animals to help the family locate a breeder and trainer of service dogs in Indiana.
The way people at St. Patrick Church responded was “very powerful,” he said.
“It’s what our faith calls us to do. As Catholics we have to be aware of all the people we can help,” said Deacon Gitscher. “I’d like to think any parish would do this. It’s an important part of being a community.”
Now the Lange family hopes to bring the same kind of aid to other families.
The Hope for Hadley Jo Project, a non-profit organization created in partnership with the Epilepsy Foundation of Kentuckiana, will help other children living with epilepsy obtain a service dog, said Lange.
“I don’t want any other parents to feel as I did,” she said, recalling how “alone and helpless” she felt following Hadley Jo’s diagnosis.
The Hope for Hadley Jo Project has teamed up with “Beaux Tied” — a local men’s neckwear and fashion accessories company, selling bowties to raise funds.
All proceeds from the purchase of special bowties will benefit the Epilepsy Foundation of Kentuckiana to help buy service dogs for other children. The purple bowtie, speckled with pictures of a dog, can be purchased online at https://www.beauxtied.com/pages/hope-for-hadley-jo-project.
For more information, visit the Facebook page Hopeforhadleyjo.