I am very pleased to introduce you to David Brownstein and his diabetes alert dog, Noodle. I may be entirely biased … but Noodle is TOTALLY ADORABLE and AMAZING!
I met David, Noodle and Lindsay (David’s wife) several months back … and I was bubbling over with questions. David was kind enough to do this interview and share his story … and Noodle’s story. ENJOY!
David was born and raised in the Boston, Massachusetts area … and diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, when he was 16, actually and coincidentally on his mother’s birthday. His dad is a T2 and he has a cousin who has T1.
Q: Tell me about your first 5 years after diagnosis?
I actually had a very long honeymoon phase that lasted over 5 years. I think part of why it was so long was that we caught my type 1 very early on. I happened to complain to my mom one day (who, despite the fact that she is a lawyer, thinks she is an MD) that I had been excessively thirsty recently and could not get through an entire class in high school without having to leave to go to the restroom. It just so happened that my dad was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes two months prior, so my mom immediately recognized those complaints as symptoms of diabetes. She had me test my blood using his kit and I was 480. All of that to say it was a significant life change having to learn to count carbs and eat differently, but my A1c readings were actually very good and I was able to control my blood sugar levels very well early on.
Q: What was the scariest thing that happened to you, as a person with diabetes?
The scariest thing that happened during my first 5 years after diagnosis was I went to school in New Orleans, about 1,500 miles away from home. I started school in August 2005, which was when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. It was all freshmen on campus for orientation, so for those of us who were not able to just go home, they evacuated us in buses to Jackson State University in Mississippi where we slept on the gym floor to ride out the storm. They were only expecting that we would be gone for 2-3 days and then go back to campus. Of course, it ended up being a much more severe storm than everyone had anticipated, so we ended up sleeping on the gym floor for about 10 days or so before they made other arrangements for us to get on another bus to Atlanta where we would stay until we could get a flight home.
There were several parts of this journey that were particularly scary as a type 1 diabetic. First, I was sleeping on a gym floor with a bunch of strangers, none of whom knew what to do if I had a severe low. Worse than that, however, was the fact that I had to worry about running out of supplies. Luckily, I overpacked my infusion sets for my pump and my other supplies just in case I ended up being gone for longer than anticipated. However, Jackson Mississippi was also hit extremely hard with the hurricane while we were there – the gym in which we were living lost power for a couple of days and we had no idea when we were going to be able to leave. There was no way to charge cell phones, I had no refrigeration for my insulin, the food when we lost power was extremely limited, and I didn’t know how or when I was going to get home. I had to learn to test my blood sugar, change my infusion set, etc. in complete darkness when we lost power. Thankfully they got us to Atlanta, where one of the friends I had made while staying on the gym floor lived, so her family actually let me stay at their house for a couple of nights until I could get a flight home (everyone else who went to Atlanta stayed at Georgia Tech).
It was a journey I’ll never forget, but to this day, anytime I am going anywhere to stay overnight, I always overpack my supplies just in case!
LESSON: Never hurts to overpack your supplies. Include batteries and chargers and bg testing supplies … and a back up vial of insulin, just in case you drop a vial!
Q: What is your life like, living with T1? Any particular challenges, triumphs or gratitudes
I try to maintain a positive outlook. Everybody has something that they deal with, and I know I could be a lot worse off than I am. With that said, having T1d is a huge nuisance! My wife and I love to take long walks and hikes, but we can’t do that without carrying a big backpack with a big bottle of juice (I have a 40 ounce Hydro Flask that I fill with apple juice every time we go for a walk), snacks, and other supplies, as my blood sugar tends to drop sharply as soon as I start exercising. We also love to travel, but anywhere I go I need to bring an extra bag just for all of my diabetic supplies. And of course, living with T1d is expensive! Luckily, my employer provides excellent health insurance coverage at a very reasonable cost to employees. But even still, I usually spend thousands of dollars a year between doctors, labs, insulin pumps and supplies, CGM sensors, insulin, test strips, etc.
I have also had a couple of scary situations where I woke up in the middle of the night and my blood sugar was so low that I couldn’t get up, I didn’t know where I was, etc. These episodes were ultimately why I decided to get a diabetic alert dog, as he is trained to wake me up before my blood sugar gets dangerously low. So I guess you could say that is my biggest challenge – controlling my blood sugar well enough that my A1c stays in a healthy range without having the severe low blood sugar episodes. At the same time, I am extremely grateful to have a wife who is attentive and knows when I say “help” in the middle of the night to jump out of bed, grab my apple juice, and make me drink it and stay awake until it gets back in a normal range. And of course now that I have him, I’m grateful for Noodle, my diabetic alert dog!
LESSON: It helps to keep or return to a positive outlook. And support is really important (partners, friends, diabetes alert dogs)!
Q: When and why did you move west to California? And how did you get involved with University of California Irvine’s Diabetes Center?
We moved out to CA in 2011 because we were sick of the snow and the cold in Boston! I happened to find UCI as the place where I got my diabetes care prior to hooking up with Dr. Wang and the UCI Diabetes Center as a member of the executive council. When I arrived in Southern California, I knew I needed to find a new endocrinologist, and I found UCI and have been extremely pleased with the care I get there. However, I didn’t even know there was a UCI Diabetes Center Executive Council that raised money for diabetes research with Dr. Wang until several years later.
I am a CPA, and I work for a firm in Irvine called Haskell & White. The firm strongly encourages employees that reach the manager level to start getting involved in the community and be active in a board of a non-profit. We serve a lot of non-profit clients, and the partners at my firm always talk about how important it is to give back to the community that has given so much to all of us. Haskell & White had donated to the UCI Diabetes Center once prior to me joining the Executive Council because our managing partner knows several people on the Executive Council, so he still got a letter in the mail every year asking for a donation. So shortly after I got promoted to manager in July of 2014, he left the letter he received that year on my desk with a note that said “perhaps this is a group you would be interested in getting involved with”. So I sent an email through their website expressing my interest, someone contacted me the next day to set up a lunch, the following week I had a meeting with the Chairman of the Executive Council that was essentially an interview, and the week after that I attended my first meeting. I have been a part of the Executive Council for the UCI Diabetes Center ever since.
Q: What’s your career like and does it pose any unusual difficulties in managing your health, your marriage and your dog?
I am a CPA and work for a public accounting firm in Irvine called Haskell & White. I am truly grateful to work for people who genuinely care about my well being. When I approached the partners about the possibility of getting a service dog for my diabetes that would be coming to work with me every day, I was extremely nervous that they would be worried about how clients would feel with me bringing a service dog to their offices. But the response I got from the managing partner when I asked him about that was “I think our clients will all understand, and if they can’t be understanding about that then maybe they are not the kind of clients we want to have anyway”. I felt a huge sense of relief when he said that, and that was when I decided to move forward with getting Noodle, who has since become kind of a firm mascot. Of course I still try to let new clients know ahead of time before just showing up with Noodle and surprising them. But the vast majority of my clients LOVE him, and I even had one client tell me recently that I’m not allowed to show up to their office without him!
I think a tough part about my career, particularly with Noodle, is being on the move a lot during the day, sometimes having to go to multiple clients in a day or new client proposals, etc. Sometimes it can cause me to forget about my blood sugar, make it hard to eat at a normal time, etc. Sometimes when I’m making a presentation to a client or a prospective client Noodle will start alerting me in the middle of the presentation, and he is trained to not stop alerting until I have finished the routine of checking my blood sugar and then rewarding him for a good alert. This can be very distracting and ultimately I have to stop and explain to the group what is going on, reward him, and then continue on with the presentation. Again, clients have been very understanding, so I think it’s mostly in my head because I don’t want to be wasting anybody’s time.
I think the biggest difficulty in terms of the marriage is just the nuisance factor that I described above. When my CGM or Noodle wakes me up during the night, it wakes my wife up too. Sometimes the CGM is not accurate so I’m actually in range but it keeps beeping because it thinks I’m out of range. In addition, as explained above, having to pack a lot more every time we travel or go on a hike is a nuisance. But my wife is extremely understanding and just cares about my health more than anything.
Q: Why did you decide to get Noodle?
I decided to get him after a couple of extreme low blood sugar episodes in the middle of the night, as mentioned above. I got him from an organization called Diabetic Alert Dogs of America. He was delivered to me on April 1, 2017, so he is still relatively new to the family.
Q: What has the training and adjustment to being with him been like? Are you with him 24/7?
I am with him 24/7. It takes a lot of work to maintain the training that he received. Plus, there is an adjustment period for him. The trainers told me that it would take 30-90 days for him to figure me out, and they said it’s natural for the dogs to test their new owners to see what they can get away with. Therefore, they do two days of in-home training when they drop the dogs off with their new owners to make sure the owners are trained on how to maintain the dog’s training. If you do not maintain his training, which involves being a strong leader, using scent samples to continue his alert training, etc., he will become an expensive pet rather than a service dog. I love having him with me all the time and he has been great, but it was definitely adjustment putting the work in and also a mental adjustment for me because people always stare, point, and talk about him when I’m in public. I have even had people be rude to me and doubt that he is a real service dog just because I don’t necessarily look like I need a service dog. But ultimately I got over all of that with time and it has actually helped me to not care about what other people think about me.
Q: What does Lindsay think about Noodle? Is she involved in your diabetes management?
Lindsay loves Noodle and she was ultimately the one that said we should seriously look into getting a service dog after one of the severe low blood sugar episodes I had. She is definitely involved in my diabetes management and is always willing to jump up and get juice for me when I need it, carry some of my supplies, etc.
Q: What’s your funniest Noodle story?
The trainers told us that it would likely take 30-90 days for Noodle to start being effective with his night alerts because of the initial adjustment period. They said the night alerts are usually the last thing to come when their dogs are transitioned to their new owners. The very first night we got him, I put him to bed on a pad right next to our bed as I was instructed and then went to sleep…only to be awakened at 2am by Noodle hurling his entire 55 pound body on top of me and scaring the you-know-what out of both Lindsay and me in the process. I tested my blood sugar and sure enough he was right…I had high blood sugar…and probably high blood pressure from being startled!
Q: What’s the best Noodle Saving You story?
I don’t know if there is a “best” story that stands out. But there was a night just a few nights ago where I tested my blood sugar right before bed and it was 128. As we were about to go to bed the smoke detector started chirping signaling the battery was low, so I spent about 10-15 minutes getting the ladder, getting a new battery, and changing it. I went to bed and Noodle started to alert me, and I tried to convince him that I had just tested 15 minutes ago and my blood sugar was perfect. So I told him to go “down” so I could go to sleep. He went down for about 5 seconds, and then got back up and alerted me, more forcefully this time, and again I tried to reason with him that I had just tested and was fine and that it was late and I just wanted to go to sleep. Of course there is no reasoning with a dog when he wants his treat, so to appease him I tested again so that I could go to bed, and my blood sugar was 60. It must have been from the exertion of carrying the ladder, but my blood sugar had dropped from 128 to 60 in under 15 minutes, and if Noodle had let me go to bed it would have likely continued down to 40 in just another few minutes. This alert likely saved me from another very dangerous low episode in the middle of the night.
Q: What do you feed Noodle? Where does he sleep? How does he play?
Noodle is on a very strict diet of regular adult dry kibble, once a day in the morning, and then the little kibble-sized training treats that are only for when he alerts. I was instructed that the absolute worst thing for his training would be to give him “free food” and table scraps, because if he thinks he gets rewarded for doing nothing then he will stop doing his job.
As mentioned above, he sleeps next to my bed right below me. He’s not supposed to sleep on the bed because the trainers say the bed by itself is a reward for him, so if he’s sleeping on the bed he’s less likely to get up and alert during the night.
It still amazes me that he knows when it’s play time and when it’s work time. He knows as soon as the service dog vest goes on that it’s definitely work time and not time to run around. But as soon as the vest comes off and I let him outside he runs and plays just like a regular dog! His favorite activity is chasing the tennis ball. He could stay in the yard while I throw him the ball all day long. But then when he comes back inside and I put the vest on him to get ready for the day, he stops running around and goes into work mode.
Q: I just had to ask … does Noodle sign autographs?
Noodle does not sign autographs or shake hands or anything like that. The trainers actually told me to not teach him these things because his paws should only be used for alerting, and they don’t want him to get confused and use them for any other kinds of tricks.
COMMENT: Dang, I thought I’d be able to end this interview with Noodle’s autograph! Well, here you go:
Thanks David, Noodle and Lindsay!
David will be the T1 CoHost on The Bonnie Sher Show on Thursday, 8 February 2018 at 2pm pst on UBN Radio. Tune in to watch/listen LIVE
Bonnie Sher: Please join me and my guests comedienne actress and author Geri Jewell and T1 cohost David Brownstein. 2pm PT/5pm ET
Join the conversation 323.843.2826