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Valley View family rests easy thanks to some helping paws

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Kyle Martin, Staff Writer

On March 19, 2010, the Pena family experienced what they now call their "D-Day." They received information about their eldest son that would change their lives.

On that day in March, the Pena family found out that their son, Grayson, would live the rest of his life with Type 1 diabetes -- also called juvenile diabetes -- and would need insulin injections daily. He was 5 years old.

Even with diagnosis and careful medical treatment, Grayson almost died in 2015 after his blood sugar bottomed out, and the resulting diabetic seizures nearly killed him.

The Penas realized they might need more than insulin to keep Grayson out of danger.

Sure enough, the latest tool to keep 12-year-old Grayson healthy comes in the from a new friend: Duke, a Labrador retriever-German shepherd mix who is a trained diabetic alert dog.

A fateful day

Grayson was doing normal fifth-grade things when he almost died in March 2015. He had run in a track meet for school earlier that day. He came home and had dinner, checked his blood sugar levels and went to sleep. Things were normal, the Penas said.

At about midnight, his parents awoke to his younger sister screaming.

"He had started seizing, eyes had rolled back in his head, and we lost him," said Stephanie Pena, Grayson's mother. They proceeded to call 911, fearing the worst, and waited for paramedics to get to their Valley View home.

Grayson's blood sugar levels had hit deathly levels in the middle of the night. After he was unresponsive for nearly three minutes, fire department medics resuscitated him.

"It was literally the longest time of my life," Stephanie said. "All I could hear was [a paramedic] saying, 'He's not breathing, he's not breathing.' Those are words you won't ever forget."

The road to recovery 

He spent six days in the hospital. Things got worse for the Penas. Two days after Grayson's incident, Stephanie's father died.

"It was kind of like one of those things where God gives a life to take a life," she said.

Fast-forward to last month, when daily life in the Pena household changed.

The family picked up Duke, a service dog, from Heads Up Hounds on Father's Day in Omaha, Nebraska.

Before Duke, Grayson's parents would survive on as little as three hours of sleep per night, constantly checking in on him, afraid of another crisis.

"He's a fighter. He's gone through a lot," Stephanie said. "If I could take it away from him in a heartbeat, I would."

Type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed in children and young adults. Of people with diabetes, about 5 percent of them have Type 1, according to the American Diabetes Association. With Type 1 diabetes, the body does not break down glucose because the pancreas does not produce insulin.

"I didn't understand it [at first]," Grayson said. "After a while it started to come through as, 'You can't do this, you can't do this.'"

However, with his trusted companion by his side, Grayson said he has more opportunity to "be free." Though there are limits in diet and changes in lifestyle that come with living with diabetes, Stephanie Pena said the whole family lives with more peace of mind knowing that Duke is there to watch over their son. And of course, the lifestyle change doesn't mean there aren't still cheat days on the diet regimen.

"We had to grow up fast," said Stephanie, who was 21 when Grayson was born.

Making room for Duke

Grayson said that having a service dog comes with its own responsibilities, and there are aspects that differ from having a household pet. The Penas have a pet dog who preceded Duke, and when they take both dogs out to games, people can pet only one of them. Grayson said he has to remind people that Duke can't always be petted because he's working.

Duke is trained to recognize the scent of Grayson's changing blood sugar levels. Stephanie Pena said that if there's something wrong with Grayson's blood sugar levels during the night, Duke will lick Grayson's face, alerting him to wake up and take care of himself. Families of children with Type 1 diabetes often struggle with bedtime, when blood sugar might be monitored by only a device.

As a testament to Duke's training, Stephanie recalled a recent baseball game when Grayson was in center field playing for his team, the Fort Worth Texans, and Duke knew something was off. Grayson's blood sugar had changed and Duke, sensing trouble from hundreds of feet away in the bleachers, alerted Stephanie. At that point, officials stopped the game and Grayson took a shot of insulin.

Duke had saved the day.

"It's life-changing," Stephanie said. "He can finally go spend the night at a friend's house, he can go hang out with friends, and I don't have to hover because I don't worry about it anymore."

FEATURED IMAGE: Grayson Pena, 12, of Valley View, sits next to his service dog, Duke, at Seven Mile Cafe in Denton. Pena has Type 1 diabetes and recently got Duke, who's trained to alert him when his blood-sugar levels change significantly. Jeff Woo/DRC.

KYLE MARTIN can be reached at 940-566-6897 or via Twitter at @Kyle_Martin35.