Dog answers prayers

Zeus, golden retriever, is trained to detect seizures in his teen owner, giving him independence

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POJOAQUE – It was a typical Friday, around 8 a.m., when Alejandro Medina went unconscious – his body convulsing, drool dripping from his mouth, neck jerking from side to side, eyes rolled backward, revealing only white between the lids.

Beside him, a 4-year-old golden retriever pressed himself against the bed, keeping "Ale" from falling to the floor, his eyes fixated on the 17-year-old's pulsing body.

Two minutes later, the shaking stopped. Zeus, Medina's service dog, snapped out of his worried state and nuzzled against him. Medina sat up, scratched the dog's ears and returned to his normal life.

Well, as normal as it can be.

In third grade, Medina was diagnosed with intractable epilepsy – a form of the neurological disorder that causes him to have multiple seizures every day, sometimes only lasting 30 seconds without drastic symptoms, and other times causing him to quake from head to toe.

"It's a fuzzy feeling– like your whole brain has been scattered," Medina said, adding that sometimes his seizures are "kind of like looking at stars."

Just over a year ago, Medina's family felt Alejandro needed a change. Little did they know that Zeus would be the answer.

"This dog has been an absolute blessing. There's life before Zeus and life after Zeus," said Stephanie Segura, Medina's mom and official health assistant. "It's impacted all of us."

To the family, Zeus is part dog, part family member and part angel. Segura explained that before Zeus came into their lives, she and Medina's sister had to be on constant alert, watching for even the slightest sign of an oncoming seizure.

"It was 24 hours a day keeping an eye on him," she said, adding that she'd sleep in the same room and keep the bathroom door propped open when he was showering, just in case something went wrong.

"Now, he can take out the trash on his own," she said. "He can walk to the store. ... It's an independence thing."

Medina said he now enjoys time to himself.

"I can walk to the store, go to the movies," he said. "It makes me feel much safer and more comfortable having [Zeus] around."

When something goes wrong, Zeus transforms from a relatively playful dog to a focused caregiver. Though he can't always detect the "absence and partial" seizures, he is responsive to any noticeable pre-episode signs – clues that even Segura said she doesn't always notice.

Prior to an oncoming seizure, the dog will bark and alert Medina to sit down; if Segura is sleeping, Zeus will enter the room and whack her with his tail; if Ale is moving, the dog will walk ahead and "block" him, turning his body sideways, so Medina has to stop.

And just moments before a tonic-clonic seizure – the worst kind, which can spread to the entire brain – Zeus will lick the tip of Ale's nose, to warn and relax him.

Segura describes Zeus' ability to predict seizure activity as a "sixth sense. ... It's like he just knows."

Medina's seizures vary in length and type. Sometimes, he said, he will experience an emotional seizure, in which "he'll cry for no reason or get angry randomly," and other times he may zone out while doing a simple task like washing his hands, rinsing his hands under water over and over again.

His mom said that during "complex" seizures, he "looks like a stroke victim" and that the left side of his face will droop, his words will slur and his left leg will drag behind him.

"We actually don't see dragging much any more though, since Zeus catches him before it starts to happen," she said.

As a child, Medina's seizures were so peculiar that even doctors weren't exactly sure what was wrong with him. Although they've now identified the disorder, and EKGs indicate that what's happening in Medina's brain are definitely seizures, the origin, unpredictability and variation remain mysteries.

"We've thought a lot about brain surgery, or if an RNS could be installed," said Segura, referring to a responsive neurostimulation device that can be placed into the skull and send an electrical current to the brain, ending Ale's seizures.

She added that Medina already has a vagus nerve stimulation implant in the left side of his chest, which sends a less direct current to the brain. It can shorten the length of seizures and recovery time after a tonic-clonic episode -- but not necessarily stop them.

The family traveled to Denver last week for testing and to inquire about brain surgery, and this Tuesday, they will return for surgery to adjust his VNS. Segura said she is cautiously optimistic. "Maybe [the seizures will] decrease. Maybe there will be a new medication," she said. "But unfortunately, because everyone's brain is different, there probably is no cure."

In many ways, these are desperate times. Because seizures can cause short-term memory loss, and the frequency of episodes have been the highest this year, keeping up in school has been increasingly arduous.

"This school year's been very difficult, because I've had more seizure activity," said Medina, adding that if he experiences a seizure while working, he has to relearn things repeatedly. He made it to school only two or three days in the month of October. "It takes a long time to finish certain projects."

Nevertheless, Medina -- who will be a senior at Pojoaque Valley High School next year – was able to maintain a near-4.0 GPA, receiving "his first B in years," among straight A's, said his mom, who attends class with him as an emergency nurse and home-schools him when he is unable to attend regular classes.

Medina said he has no intention of letting his condition keep him from success. He plans to attend Santa Fe Community College after graduating and hopes to one day be a filmmaker, video game designer or author.

His dreams of making film were encouraged recently when he won third place in the documentary category at this year's Future Voices of New Mexico Student Film and Photography Festival and Awards Ceremony, for his film Zeus the Service Dog.

The point of the film was to raise awareness about a condition that remains relatively invisible and misunderstood.

"People have a bunch of misconceptions," Medina said. "Most people just don't know what epilepsy is."

Before Zeus, Medina was hesitant to stand up for himself or speak up about his condition, but in the last year, his mom said, he's become more sure of himself.

"The dog made him more confident. Getting to know Zeus allows [peers] to know Alejandro," she said, noting Ale is now the president and treasurer of anime club, participates in community service projects, and will go to movies with peers. "He's made real friends and has opened up."

It's no secret to anyone who knows Ale that his dog has heightened his quality of life.

About three hours after Medina's tonic-clonic seizure, Ale and Zeus played with a red plastic ball in the living room of their Pojoaque apartment.

Medina pulled Zeus's face away from him, looking him in the eye with a smile, and the two gave a glance only soul mates exchange.

As Medina's face lit up, so did the dog's. It was an A-to-Z smile.

"I don't just see him as a dog. I see him as a person. ... He's my best friend," Medina said. "He's everything to me."

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