The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


October 14, 2012

Heroic Heidi

How dogs and determination equal employment, freedom for the disabled

What do you get when you train a Greater Swiss Mountain Dog to detect ketones (the by-products of fats and fatty-acid breakdown) through their sense of smell? A diabetic’s best friend.

When Bredga Neal, a counselor with the Beckley VA Medical Center and a Type II diabetic, learned that search and rescue dogs could track lost people by the scent of the ketones released through urine and respirations, indicative of falling blood glucose levels, she had an idea.

Neal was at wit’s end with the feeling of hypoglycemia she experiences harshly as “a separation of body and soul.”

“I used to be a supervisor. Employees would take advantage of when my blood sugar would get too low. That’s when they’d ask for their days off. You get confused.” Neal felt she was not only making herself vulnerable with rushed work decisions while managing a bottoming blood glucose, but she knew her diabetes could leave her at risk of slipping into a coma or even death. Her ailment was further complicated by a bleeding disorder preventing her from repeatedly pricking her fingers for traditional monitoring of levels. She then took the unlikely path of becoming a dog trainer to teach her first service dog to detect her irregular blood sugars.

That first was her beloved Bubby. When Bubby passed away from cancer, Heidi became in charge of Neal’s condition. Both were of the same breed, a cousin to the Saint Bernard and highly sensitized to detecting changes in the human body. When Heidi senses ketones on Neal’s breath, she’ll nudge her near the mouth as a reminder that she needs to eat. As the associated fog of confusion descends on Neal due to an abrupt drop in blood sugar, Heidi faithfully responds by alerting Neal and others, if needed. She can also hit a special button to dial 9-1-1 and transmit a message for emergency assistance to Neal, in the event she becomes unconscious. Luckily, she has never had to use the ability.

A fixture at the Beckley VAMC, complete with her own service jacket and ID card, the only offense to Heidi’s record is she once stole a candy bar from a fellow employee’s purse and laid it on Neal’s lap when she was dangerously low and didn’t know. “There wasn’t a tooth mark on it,” Neal says, laughing. She carries a laminated prescription given by her physician recognizing Heidi’s critical contributions as an extension of her regular blood glucose monitoring.

Neal will have partially-retired Heidi in addition to her successor, Gunny, as four-legged entourage while she addresses the crowd at the 15th Annual Disability Employment Awareness Forum October 25 at Tamarack Conference Center. The forum is part of October’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month activities and is sponsored by the Beckley VAMC and several other local and state agencies. While the forum offers continuing education credits to medical professionals, it is free for the general public. The goal is to broaden the understanding of the all resources available to assist those representing a wide range of disabilities in regaining their independence through employment.

As one of several speakers for the day, Neal will discuss the importance of service animals, how to use service animals in the workplace and the process of applying to get a service animal. “I’ll help people to know about the different types of service dogs available,” she explains, including the rise in popularity of therapy dogs and dogs to help with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.


Janie Flanagan, Caregiver Support Coordinator for Beckley VAMC encourages, “We want everyone to come. Those who are disabled will hear about services available to them to help seek employment.” What Flanagan and other organizers expect is for attendees to realize: whatever the disability, it should not deter from seeking the independence and satisfaction achieved by being part of the workforce.

“Some people with disabilities won’t seek employment out of a fear of failure or of being rejected,” Flanagan explains. “But there are businesses who will hire them. They’ll get a check they’ve earned, and it will give them a sense of self-worth for providing a service.”

Beckley VAMC Public Affairs Officer Debbie Voloski understands vicariously the challenges of disabilities and the benefits of regaining independence. Her son, Joe Voloski II, was an 18-year-old senior in high school when a car accident resulting in a serious cranial smash nearly took his life. “We were told he’d never be able to work and probably wouldn’t finish school.” Through much determination, faith and support, Voloski was able to finish school, continue on to college and ultimately complete his master’s degree. “Now, he’s a civilian firefighter for the Navy at Virginia Beach,” says Voloski proudly. Her son has spoken at the disability forum in past years and continues to speak at other venues about overcoming disabilities. He is also a past Ability Works award recipient from the WV Division of Rehabilitation Services for overcoming his disabilities and going back to work.

There are many issues prohibiting those with disabilities from entering or reentering the workforce, recognizes Flanagan. “There are transportation issues, education issues, physical limitations and fears, but there are no excuses.” Flanagan and her collaborators are confident the information presented at the forum will empower those with disabilities to confidently overcome their obstacles and to set achievable goals toward securing gainful employment, even in a difficult economy.

“When a disabled person finds employment, it helps everyone,” she states.


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