A Bond of Love: A Woman and Her Seizure Alert Dog
Looking for a Cure
Candice Hernandez felt a tug on her train. Turning, she locked eyes with the dog nestling in the folds of her silk wedding dress. Chiper, a German shepherd/coonhound mix, stared back, playing dumb. "At least she didn't fluff it first!" says Candice, laughing at the scene from her wedding last year in a rose garden in Winter Park, Florida. "Obviously the bare floor just wasn't comfortable enough for her." Or maybe the dog -- dazzling in her own doggy gown and veil -- was staking out turf. "She wanted to make it clear that Tim was marrying her, too," Candice says, only half joking.
For better or for worse, Chiper always stays within licking distance of Candice: at the movie theater, in aerobics class, on the drenching Congo River Rapids, Candice's favorite ride at Busch Gardens. Her black nose even peeked out from under the tablecloth at a formal banquet the night husband Tim Escandon, 20, proposed. "It was nice having her under the table," admits Candice.
Candice, 22, is always grateful for her canine company. She suffers from epilepsy and never knows when a seizure will strike. Chiper, however, does. Anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours ahead of each attack, Chiper's mysterious sixth sense kicks in and she sounds the alarm by barking, pawing, and nudging her owner. Those advance warnings give Candice time to activate a special device that makes the seizure less severe or aborts it completely.
Despite a family history of epilepsy, Candice didn't develop the disorder until November 2000 when, doctors surmise, a head trauma from a car accident triggered her first attack. One minute she was chatting with friends after chorus practice. The next she was on her back, staring at a circle of frightened faces. Within a month, the teenager, a top student who sang in three choirs, was suffering up to four seizures a day.
Having a seizure is "a marathon workout," says Candice, who had to count on school administrators who were briefed on the disorder to see her through. "Every single muscle in your body contracts tight and you can't do anything to stop it." The seizures became so frequent that Candice had to study from home her junior year.
In May 2001, after two promising medications had failed to help, Candice saw a neurologist who suggested a vagus nerve stimulator (VNS). Sometimes called "a pacemaker for the brain," VNS is a battery-powered device that prevents seizures by sending regular mild pulses of electrical signals to the brain. By passing a magnet over the implanted device whenever she first felt an aura -- the distinctive sensation that signals an attack -- Candice could make a seizure last just five minutes, down from 15 or 20. Although VNS wasn't a cure, it controlled Candice's seizures enough to let her take less medication and return to school for her senior year.
It was good progress but not good enough. Candice wanted even more control over her seizures, especially because of her blossoming relationship with her neighbor, Tim. She worried about the future, too. What would happen when she went to college and teachers and students didn't understand her disorder?