ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Just as in all good stories of boys and their dogs, Dezmond Hill, 18, and Shadow, his service dog, are heroes.
Both fight Hill’s epilepsy every day and night. So far they are winning, but their journey is epic.
In two years together, Shadow, a pit bull-Labrador retriever-cross trained as an alert and rescue seizure dog, has saved Hill’s life at least seven times.
Hill, who has multiple kinds of seizures and takes as many as 26 pills a day to keep them at bay, has played sports, participated in Marine ROTC and worked hard academically.
He will graduate this spring from Rio Grande High School and Shadow will be where he always is – at Hill’s side.
“It means a lot to have him. It means even if I’m alone, I’m still safe,” Hill explains one day after basketball practice. “He’s my best friend. He’s always there for me through thick and thin.”
Shadow allows him to move through school much as any other student athlete, but he is always ready to alert someone if Hill has a seizure.
When Shadow perceives changes in Hill’s behavior that indicate a seizure is imminent, “he starts bugging and he won’t lay down. The first time I didn’t know that’s what he was doing. Then I hit the floor.”
Almost four years ago, Hill had his first seizure while on a short trip to northern New Mexico, but wasn’t diagnosed at the hospital then, says his mom, Jennifer Solis-Ball. Two days later, she found him at home, bloody and passed out in the hall. As he was being discharged from an emergency room in Albuquerque, he had another seizure and he was diagnosed with epilepsy.
“The entire staff saw it. He fell back shaking. It was a tonic-clonic seizure. The next week he had 13 major seizures,” she says. A tonic-clonic seizure is commonly known as a grand mal seizure.
It took time to find a medication that would keep the seizures at bay, but not have disabling side effects.
The first drug was a nightmare, Hill says. “I was an evil child.”
Solis-Ball says the first medicine left Hill extremely agitated and violent. Another medication didn’t stop the seizures. Now he’s on a prescription that made him sleepy at first, but seems to have the best suppression of the seizures with the fewest side effects.
Dr. Bruce Fisch, Hill’s neurologist at the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, a regional specialty clinic, says most people with epilepsy find the center when the initial drug prescribed by a family doctor fails to control seizures.
Epilepsy is a medical condition in which an area of the brain that is abnormally hyperexcitable causes repeated seizures. A seizure occurs when there is an electrical change in the brain cells. One group of cells become very excited and that energy stimulates other cells, Fisch explains. “Epilepsy is like a line dance that keeps expanding.”
At the time of the seizure, the hyperexcitability intensifies, resulting in a sudden change in behavior, usually lasting less than three minutes, that can vary in appearance from a simple sensation to blank staring, to whole body stiffening and jerking, Fisch says.
According to the Epilepsy Foundation, one in 26 people will have epilepsy in their lifetimes. About 3 million Americans have epilepsy.
“It used to be far more common in the pediatric population, but now we’re all living longer, so the statistics are shifting to people who are older. The older you get the more likely you are to experience trauma, strokes or infections,” he says.
All of those are causes for epilepsy, but for some, like Hill, the cause is elusive.
Of those with epilepsy about one-third cannot control seizures with medications. That’s when brain surgery and other procedures may be indicated, he says.
Not for Hill, however. After imaging his brain, Fisch learned his seizures are generated from several areas, so surgery isn’t an option to relieve the problem, Fisch says.
He says epilepsy is more common and more disabling than most people understand. “It’s very isolating when you don’t know when you may have a seizure. Epilepsy has always had a stigma, many people have very primitive ideas about epilepsy – that people are inhabited by spirits, that epilepsy is contagious. It tends to block access socially.”
It’s difficult to advance with education, when seizures can disrupt thinking for hours or days at a time. It’s difficult to marry or have friends. “How do they become employed? They can’t drive.” The state requires a seizure-free period of time before someone can be eligible for a license, he says.
People with epilepsy are also at risk for injury and death, Fisch says.
He’s seen patients with severe burns that caused them to lose hands or fingers because they had a seizure while they were cooking or near a fire. Death can occur when people fall and hit their head or have seizure in sleep and smother in their pillows.
About one in 1,000 people with epilepsy die every year from SUDEP (sudden, unexpected death in epilepsy), according to the Epilepsy Foundation. The causes are often unknown, but could result from breath stopping or irregular heartbeats or erratic brain function.
The real risk of losing her son caused Solis-Ball to explore all kinds of alert systems, including getting a dog and finding a trainer. The number of deaths each year from SUDEP is hard to estimate, but could be as high as 50,000, she says.
“I work full time and I needed to know my son was OK,” she says. “A couple of times, he wasn’t. He was blue and not breathing.”
But when she explored the cost of getting a trained service dog, the tens of thousands of dollars was out of reach, she says. She and her son have explored many other alert devices, but they all are expensive.
They met Rishard Wood, a veteran who trained dogs in the military and now trains dogs through his small local company Cherry Pit Training. He’s trained dogs for people with post traumatic stress disorder, for diabetes, for seizures and other problems.
He suggested they adopt a rescue dog and they found Shadow at the city’s Animal Welfare Eastside Shelter. He also worked with the family to make the training affordable.
Although he’s trained hundreds of dogs of all sizes during the past 10 years, he prefers larger dogs with leadership abilities, like German shepherds and pit bulls.
“Dezmond and Shadow have a bond you don’t see very often and that’s really fortunate,” Wood says. “You have to have the right training, the right dog and the right owner.”
Dogs all have talents, smart in different ways, he says. He worked with Hall to train Shadow to responds to particular changes in his body, to find Hill and go for help if Hill was unresponsive.
“Shadow latched on to his training. Not every dog can do it. Not every dog wants to work,” Wood explains. “We taught him the command, where’s Dezmond? We taught him to find Dezmond. The more seizures he has around the dog, the more Shadow can pick up on it.”
Solis-Ball says Shadow is strong enough to pull Hill from under his covers or away from his bed. He also alerts the family: “He’ll ram the door.”
“We were scared, but we were determined that he was still going to live his life,” she says.
Hill and his family want other children and teens with epilepsy to have those same chances at life, despite the expense of trained service dogs and alert devices so they created a nonprofit, Paws for Epilepsy.
Despite all the challenges, Hill lives his life as well as he can. He plays basketball and runs cross country and has also played football and baseball. He is part of the Marine ROTC program at Rio Grande, where Hill is a gunnery sergeant and Shadow, with two promotions, is a lance corporal.
Lt. Col. Michael A. Hunter, a retired Marine, says Shadow on duty with Hill inspires him and all the cadets, demonstrating true leadership by example: “Shadow does his job without fanfare. He does his job because he is loyal to Dez and Dez alone. They are partners. They are brothers. So, just as every Marine fights to protect his comrades from harm, Shadow protects Dez from harm. Just as every Marine is trained to do his job, to do what is right, whether anyone is looking or not, Shadow is trained to do his job. Shadow leads and motivates without saying a word. Simply put, he does his job. And he does it well.”