She’s just a five-pound weight in his backpack, but Flame the seizure assistance Papillon is a big hero to Joel Wilcox.
“She helps me, she calms me down,” explains the 14-year-old, who was diagnosed with epilepsy in elementary school.
Now a ninth grader, Joel was forced to leave school in fifth grade because he was experiencing between 30 to 50 tonic-clonic seizures a day.
These seizures (formerly known as grand mal seizures), cause Joel to lose consciousness. His muscles stiffen and his limbs begin to jerk.
Joel was only able to return to a school routine last year with the help of Flame, who rides in his backpack through the crowded corridors.
The pair also star in a comic book called Medikidz Explain Seizure Assistance Dogs. It’s one in a series of books used to explain medical conditions to children. The comic features an 11-year-old version of Joel as he and Flame have an adventure with the five Medikidz superheroes.
“I think the comic book will help other people by giving them information about what epilepsy is about so that they can understand,” Joel says.
In the fictional version of Joel’s life, the comic book heroes burst into his room and teleport the boy to meet Flame, but in real life it wasn’t so simple. His family struggled for years after his epilepsy diagnosis.
“We were always on edge,” says Joel’s mom, Amy Wilcox. “We were always there to catch him. Night was really scary. I was always terrified that we were going to sleep through something that he needed us for.”
Joel’s parents needed to be ready to rush to his side 24 hours a day because a seizure could strike at any second. This meant he had none of the independence kids that age crave. His parents had to monitor him even while he was in the bathroom.
“Simple things that we take for granted, that we can do privately, he couldn’t do,” Amy says.
Joel’s future changed one fateful day at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, when Amy stepped out of her son’s hospital room for a moment.
“I just happened to be walking to the nurses station to get something,” she says, “and I walked passed a door with a sign that said something like ‘Dog at Work.'”
Amy began asking questions about the family with the dog and found out they had a daughter Joel’s age who also had frequent seizures. The girl’s mother enthusiastically shared her family’s experience.
“Within five minutes, she was in our room with their dog, Blitzen, on Joel’s bed, telling us about how Blitzen changed her daughter’s life.”
At that moment, Amy decided to find a seizure assistance dog for Joel. The family connected with 4 Paws for Ability, a service dog organization in Ohio. The nonprofit trains dogs for children with disabilities and for veterans. Dogs learn to assist with a variety of medical issues, including hearing, autism, mobility assistance, diabetes, and food allergens.
After reaching out to 4 Paws for Ability, the family began fundraising and waiting, as it takes more than a year to train each dog.
“They really want to tailor the dog to your child,” Amy says. “We made videotapes, and we sent in shirts that Joel had been wearing while seizing.”
Dogs such as Flame are trained to understand what a person smells like normally and what the person smells like during a seizure. The dogs can then alert to a chemical change that people can’t smell before any physical symptoms of a seizure begin.
The family didn’t find out which dog they were matched with until about a week before an intensive training course began, but Joel and Flame connected as soon as they were paired.
“I just walked into 4 Paws, and I saw her there in her cage,” Joel remembers. “It made me so happy.”
Amy says Joel was actually well enough to do all of the training himself and is certified to handle Flame.
While the dog already had 500 hours of training herself, Joel needed to start with the basics as a handler. Over two weeks, the pair progressed from basic obedience to practicing handling in crowded spaces like malls. The training ensured that Joel could control Flame’s behavior in public.
With Flame’s help he was able to go back to class, carrying his little hero in his backpack to the eighth grade.
“He got to take his best friend to his first day of school with him,” Amy says. “Stress is a big trigger for Joel, and she’s just very calming to him.”
Not only has Flame helped reduce Joel’s panic attacks, but she’s also given his parents back some peace of mind. She continues to improve as a service dog.
“She’s awesome,” Amy says. “She’s gotten better with her seizure alert. That’s not a magical thing, it takes work.”
Amy hopes her son’s comic book stardom will spread the word about seizure assistance dogs.
“We were unaware of what a seizure dog could do. It’s not just the seizure alert — they train them to do tricks and things because they want them to be a social bridge for the children.”
With Flame by his side, Joel always has a built-in conversation starter and a friend to turn to in stressful moments.
“When I’m really mad at somebody, I can go over and love on her, and it helps me through things,” he explains.
While Flame is helping Joel, as Medikidz heroes they are both helping other kids understand epilepsy.
Their casting in the comic book was born from the partnership between 4 Paws for Ability and pharmaceutical company Eisai, which has made a commitment to public education about epilepsy and raises funds for the creation of service dog teams for kids with seizure disorders.
Eisai asked 4 Paws for Ability if the organization knew of a kid and dog who could take on the leading roles in the comic book. The founder of 4 Paws for Ability, Karen Shirk, knew instantly that Joel and Flame would be the perfect duo to spread the Medikidz message of reducing stigma.
Flame has changed Joel’s life, but they both are changing the public perception of epilepsy and service dogs, and that makes them a pair of Dogster heroes, too.
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About the Author: Heather Marcoux is a freelance writer in Alberta, Canada. Her beloved Ghost Cat was once her only animal, but Specter the kitten and GhostBuster the dog make her fur family complete. Heather is also a wife, a bad cook, and a former TV journalist. Some of her friends have hidden her feed because of an excess of cat pictures. If you don’t mind cat pictures, you can follow her on Twitter; she also posts pet GIFs on Google+.