By Sharon Salyer Herald Writer
EVERETT — Nearly every moment of Nate Sample’s life — when he’s in his room playing, when he’s in the shower, and even when he’s sleeping — someone is either watching him or on alert nearby.
In the middle of the night, his mom, Merriah Sample, sometimes focuses the gentle electronic glow from her cell phone screen on her son’s face to check his breathing.
Her husband, Spencer Sample, says he sometimes awakens with a startle to check on Nate, just wanting the assurance that his 10-year-old son is OK.
Their vigilance is for signs of epileptic seizures, which can occur as he sleeps.
“Every little sound, it’s hard to sleep,” Nate’s dad said.
Nate was diagnosed at age 3 with a type of epilepsy that can’t be treated with brain surgery. But a specially trained dog can help alert his family that a seizure is about to begin.
Friends launched a drive in December to help raise $15,400. It will pay for the special training the dog needs and cover the costs for Nate and his family to fly to California for two weeks of classes with the dog.
“Tons of people have donated tons of money for me to get my dog,” Nate said. “It feels pretty good for people to be helping out like that. I’m really looking forward to getting my dog.”
During Nate’s seizures, his heart beats rapidly, but his breathing is suppressed.
Nate has several different types of seizures. Some, which happen almost daily, are more subtle, an unfocused gaze, a rigid clenching of his muscles. Or it can be a repetitive twitching of his arm or leg.
But the most serious seizures are potentially brain damaging and life threatening. One of those happened in November in his fourth grade classroom at Forest View Elementary School.
If someone didn’t know Nate, it would simply have appeared to be a student sitting at his desk with his hand resting on his head.
But he didn’t move when the teacher gave directions. An adult educational aide, who shadows Nate throughout the day to help with class work as well as be on the alert for medical problems, called 911 for help.
Nate takes medications each day to try to prevent the most dangerous seizures. But sometimes they happen anyway.
When the most dangerous types of seizures strike, Nate must be administered medicine within minutes to stop them. Any one of these, called status seizures, risk triggering a condition called Sudden Unexplained Death During Epilepsy.
“It’s very scary,” his mom said. “We know one of these seizures could take Nate’s life. Every one that we catch keeps his brain from suffering too much damage.”
Family friends helped set up a fundraising website, Nate Needs A Dog, in December. People from geographic locales as distant as Indonesia and New Zealand responded.
Overall, about 300 people have contributed. “Strangers, the community, everyone’s come together to help Nate out,” his mom said.
Some kids asked for donations to the fund in lieu of birthday presents. Josiah Minton, 14, an eighth grader at Gateway Middle School, donated $50 he was given for Christmas.
“It was a good decision because Nate should get the best of out his childhood,” he said.
Gold Creek Community Church in Mill Creek has scheduled a fundraiser from 4 to 7 p.m. Feb. 23.
Once the fund drive reaches its goal, any additional money will be donated to the nonprofit Little Angels Service Dogs, based near San Diego, to help other families who need specially trained dogs, Nate’s mom said.
Dogs can be trained to assist people with a variety of medical conditions, including people with psychiatric conditions such as PTSD, hearing problems, or physical problems that require them to use crutches or wheelchairs, said Katie Gonzalez, director of Little Angels Service Dogs.
In Nate’s case, they’re looking for a dog that will alert Nate and his family to a seizure. That means the dog must have excellent eye contact, be willing to watch Nate constantly and also be calm, Gonzalez said.
“The dogs are not predicting a seizure,” Gonzalez said. “They’re just letting us know that a seizure activity has begun.”
Scientific studies haven’t been conducted to know how dogs sense seizures, she said. “We believe there’s an electrical change in the brain that’s letting off a scent in the body.”
Dogs signal a seizure in various ways, such as barking, pacing, yawning or pawing the leg of its owner, she said.
It’s not unusual for people to wait six months to a year for one of the organization’s specially trained service dogs.
Nate is “over the moon excited” at the prospect of getting a service dog, his mom said.
“Can you imagine being 10 and you still can’t take a shower or bath without someone checking in on you? He’s up in his room, playing with Legos and someone’s checking on him — little things we kind of take for granted.”
Nate understands, but it delays his rites of passage to do things more independently.
One recent evening, as he lay on the couch, he looked at his mom and asked: “How old do I have to be when I get to go to a movie with my friends?”
Nate’s mom said she hopes the service dog will allow Nate to be more independent and have more confidence. Not knowing when a seizure might strike sometimes has kept Nate from participating in church and other social activities. “He’s very shy,” she said.
The dog will allow uncomfortable attention in social situations to be deflected away from Nate, she said. It’s not unusual for people to break out in grins when a friendly dog walks into a room.
“This will be so much more than a service dog for him,” him mom said. “It will be his best friend.”
Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or firstname.lastname@example.org
A fundraiser to help pay for a service dog to alert 10-year old Nate Sample of Everett to impending seizures is scheduled for 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Feb. 23 at the Gold Creek Community Church, 4326 148th St. SE in Mill Creek.