If there’s one thing Stefany Shaheen hits on exactly right in her new book, Elle & Coach: Diabetes, the Fight for My Daughter’s Life, and the Dog Who Changed Everything, it’s the effect diabetes can have on an entire family.
This is the opinion of Pam Shedd, whose 15-year-old daughter McKenna has had diabetes for five years. The Merrimac, Mass., mom bought 11 copies to pass out to friends, relatives and her daughter’s school at its Aug. 25 release. The family had seen the Shaheens’ yellow lab, Coach, on Chronicle a couple years ago and was inspired to get its own alert dog, a black lab named Dice. Instead of McKenna having to constantly monitor blood sugar levels, Dice can smell when the levels are off and let McKenna know by licking or nudging her.
“I felt like I was reading about my life, too,” Shedd said via phone last week. “People tell me, ‘I had no idea Type 1 [diabetes] was like that.’ We just do what we have to do and move on with our lives, but people don’t know — they don’t know how serious Type 1 is.”
Shaheen — the daughter of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen — said she’s heard numerous times that their story has helped readers understand the effects of Type 1 and has prompted other families to apply for alert dogs.
They’re the kinds of responses mother and daughter were hoping for when they decided to write Elle & Coach about two years ago. It’s seen lots of attention from local and national news outlets, like ABC News and the Boston Globe, perhaps because the messages in the memoir are so universal.
“Even if you don’t have diabetes or know someone who has diabetes, [all parents] can understand what it feels like to have to worry something is wrong with their child,” Shaheen said. “Whether it’s a health problem or a learning disability, our story is symbolic of the stories of so many people. Plus, I think people are amazed by what dogs can do. … Really, the sort of underlying moral of our story is that you can find hope in really unlikely places.”
Their hope came in the form of Coach, whom the Shaheens purchased through Cares Inc. in Kansas. The industry, Shaheen said, is not very well-regulated; some alert dogs have been known to cost as much as $20,000, which is very much out of reach for many families. Cares, on the other hand, is able to keep prices low — normal costs are between $2,500 and $3,500, she said — because it partners with a correctional facility.
Having Coach took an enormous amount of strain off the Shaheen family. The lab travels with Elle, a student at Portsmouth High School, everywhere she goes — to her classes, to lunch, to her musical theater rehearsal after school. He’ll stay home if Elle wants to go out with friends or if he’s had a particularly long day, but for the most part, he’s there all the time and trained to work. His day starts with a long walk at 6 a.m., followed by breakfast and and classes with Elle, during which he’ll receive treats for doing his job. He takes a load off mother and daughter especially.
“Because of the nature of diabetes — and again, it’s Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease with no cure — it requires constant management,” Shaheen said. “Before Coach, so much of that day-to-day management fell squarely on her shoulders and on mine.”
Shaheen was skeptical that Coach would help. Elle had been part of numerous medical trials and nothing had ever made a real difference. Most conversations between mother and daughter had to do with the disease; instead of things like, ‘How was your day,’ they were about, ‘When have you taken your medicine?’ and, ‘How many carbs are in that food?’
“The benefit of having Coach beside her is the companionship and the support he gives her,” Shaheen said. “He alerts her before she feels the symptoms, which are so powerful. She doesn’t have to feel bad before she acts. ... And she’s focused on what she needs to do for him because she loves him, and he’s her dog, instead of the emphasis always being on diabetes.”
Shaheen had been writing about diabetes since Elle was first diagnosed at age 9. When she realized their story could be a book, she reached out to Mark Dagostino of Stratham, a bestselling author and former writer for People magazine. They put together a proposal and caught the attention of Mauro DiPreta, publisher of Hachette Book Group in New York City, who was also editor/publisher of Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog by John Grogan.
There have been rumors Shaheen, a Portsmouth city councilor, is considering running for governor if Gov. Maggie Hassan decides not to run, but she declined to comment.