PILOT MOUNTAIN — Carriella Starnes’ life is like that of many teenagers — she recently received her learner’s permit, she is a junior at East Surry High School and is preparing to go to her first prom; she is a member of the National Honor Society. Just by looking at her, one would not be able to see anything different, and would not know the battle with diabetes Cariella has faced since she was diagnosed before the age of 1.
Now, Carriella has a constant companion by her side, a four-legged friend — her Diabetic Assistance Dog named Gaz, thanks to support from the community.
Carriella was diagnosed with Type I diabetes before age 1, and she spent her 1st birthday in the pediatric intensive care unit. After her diagnosis, Carriella’s mother, Karen Hall, had to inject her 1-year-old child with insulin shots, anywhere from five to seven shots per day.
At age 2, a pediatric endocrinologist recommended that Carriella receive an insulin pump, and at that time, she was one of the youngest children to ever have an insulin pump, which gives her a specific dose of insulin every three minutes. The pump stays in 24 hours per day, keeping her alive and healthy, but even with the insulin pump, Carriella’s blood sugar could crash or spike at any moment.
Carriella has a medical condition called Hypoglycemic Unawareness, which is very common in people with diabetes. Although sometimes a diabetic person can recognize when their blood sugar is low, sometimes they cannot and it is dangerous for a diabetic person to have low blood sugar, especially if they are alone.
While in a doctor’s office at age 14, Carriella saw a video about how people with severe diabetes are eligible to receive a service dog, which sparked an idea in Carriella’s mind, and she immediately began her research, contacting the Ears Eyes Nose and Paws (EENP) organization to inquire about how to receive a service dog, and what type of costs were involved. Carriella shared last year while trying to raise funds that the service dog would “significantly increase her ability to function in the world.”
Carriella has always exhibited a strong drive to succeed and a passion to achieve her dreams. She has received multiple awards for dance, including Teen Soloist National Champion; she played soccer for seven years, even after being told she would never be able to play; and people told her she would never be able to raise enough money for the service dog, but that only motivated her further.
“If I have a dream, I go for it, and this is an important dream,” Carriella said with determination, after raising 10 percent of the cost for the service dog.
Donors came out in full force to help Carriella achieve her dream, including key donors like Attorneys Mike and Steve Royster and Deidre Rogers of Rogers Realty. Carriella began speaking at events, clubs, schools and organizations, sending out letters and emails — anything she could do to get the word out about the service dog and how life-changing it could be for her.
“I made sure that I did my part, and through the generosity of friends, family and even strangers, and God doing his part as well, I achieved my dream,” Carriella shared, in a speech she gave at the service dog graduation, when she was matched with a dog she describes as her soulmate, her super hero — her four-legged hero Gaz. Gaz’s full name is Monty’s Angel Gaz Royster, named after Deidre Rogers’ brother Monty who had diabetes and Mike and Steve Royster.
“Some super heroes fly — mine sits and stays. Gaz is my all-the-time, everywhere best friend. He has alerted me [to blood sugar spikes or lows] at home, at school, at dance, and even during the craziness of dance competition. He has been my Presidential candidate in civics class, part of my science project, my escort on the homecoming court, my dance partner, the warmer on my feet on cold nights, my reminder to eat, and also my reminder that taking the road less traveled often results in some amazing scenery,” Carriella said in her speech.
Carriella received Gaz in October of last year and completed training in March. Hall said Gaz has fit right in with the family, and has been such a relief to everyone. “I did expect it to be more of a peace of mind for me when Carriella received him, but it really is, even more than I expected. He goes absolutely everywhere with her…there are so many remarkable small instances that have happened to reaffirm how wonderful he is.”
One instance Hall is referring to took place one month ago, when Gaz woke Hall and her husband up by jumping on the bed, then leading Hall to Carriella’s room.
“He was trying to tell me something was wrong. I woke Carriella up and told her to check her blood sugar and she was at 234. If Gaz hadn’t woke me up, the next morning she would have been much higher and we would have had a huge problem. It turned out, there was an issue with the site of her [insulin] pump; she wasn’t getting all the insulin she needed through the needle. She would have been in the 500s by morning and would have been very sick and missed school. Gaz was nudging her but she didn’t wake up, and he knew to come and wake me up.”
Another incident last month took place at Carriella’s dance competition. Gaz couldn’t go on stage with Carriella, so Hall and her family had him in the audience, but he kept trying to get away, to run up to the stage. At the end of Carriella’s dance, Hall said she could tell by the look on Carriella’s face that something was wrong.
“Gaz knew. We found out her blood sugar had dropped while she was on stage, and he was trying to get to her because he knew it was low and was trying to alert her that something was not right,” Hall said, with a sigh of relief.
Carriella said the training process involved EENP doing home visits with various dogs, including Gaz, to find the right match, and traveling to school, band practice, and her dance studio, to obtain more information about her lifestyle, and see which dogs were able to handle the noise and level of activity in Carriella’s life. They quickly realized Gaz was the best — “more outgoing, able to run around, active, and able to handle noise,” Carriella said.
Training also involved bonding and more technical skills such as how to walk on the leash and how to obey commands. Gaz now goes everywhere with Carriella. Going to school with her at East Surry High School has been a learning experience, not only for Carriella but also for her peers. Sometimes people aren’t quite sure how to react, and may run up and try to play with Gaz, Carriella said, and she said Gaz can react like a normal dog would in that instance, so she is still working on teaching people how to act around a service dog.
Hall said that Gaz is trained to open the refrigerator and grab a juice box if Carriella’s blood sugar is too low. Gaz alerts her to low and high blood sugar, and if she doesn’t respond, he fetches her meter.
“I don’t want to stop doing what I love, and he makes me feel so much safer. I can do more now and not have to worry about anything happening,” Carriella said.
Carriella said she and Gaz are “a lot alike” including a love of dancing. “I taught him how to dance, and he even gets jealous when I dance and don’t let him dance with me. We lay upstairs on the couch and watch movies and we both eat popcorn. He even loves dressing up. He has a football jersey, and even a tux for prom.”
Carriella now shares her story at schools and events, telling others about how to overcome adversity and sharing the story about how service dogs are not just for the blind, they are for others as well.
“People should know if they really want to do something, they can do it, and they shouldn’t listen to people who are negative…I was told I couldn’t raise the $21,000 for Gaz, and I did it, thanks to everyone who supported me. He’s been a life-changer for me, and I don’t know what I’d do without him,” Carriella said, who was becoming emotional talking about her experience.
“We had so many people who called and emailed, and every bit helped,” Hall said. “One lady even called and said she had no money, but would say a prayer every day until she found out Carriella got her dog. That lady praying, those who gave spare change, $5, and up to those who gave more, that allowed this to happen. We wanted to make sure she had as normal of a life as possible, and it is all because of all of you, all of you who gave from your hearts.”
Reach Jessica Johnson at 719-1933 and on Twitter @MountAiryJess.