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An Unusual Workout Buddy

OTF Member Katherine doesn’t let diabetes stop her from getting her Splat Points in. She’s in great paws, knowing her furry friend, Blaze, is ready to save her life if her glucose levels drop during a workout.

By Leslie Barker

At the end of her Orangetheory workouts Katherine Wallace checks her results, just like everyone else. Her workout buddy, however, couldn’t care less. Blaze is happy just to get a little rub on the nose or tickle behind the ears.

Then again, her partner, Blaze, is a dog. A two-year-old Golden Doodle service dog. While Orangetheory does not allow pets in the studio, members who require certified service dogs are able to bring them to class.

Although she’d rather be just another person earning her Splat Points, Katherine, 26, is known at her local studio as “the girl with the dog.” But Blaze isn’t just a cute dog. He’s trained to help save Katherine’s life by recognizing when her blood sugar levels drop dangerously.

“All the coaches give me the treadmill on the end so he’s right there on the floor next to me,” Katherine says. “He’ll stand up and scoot as close as he can to the treadmill without stepping on it and he’ll stare at me. That’s his way of alerting me without getting hurt.”

Katherine has had Type 1 diabetes since she was 9 years old. The disease, in which the pancreas produces little to no insulin, has no cure. But Katherine deals with it valiantly, taking in stride the tedious monitoring of her blood sugar levels. Vigilance is critical to avoiding the seizures triggered by dangerous drops in glucose levels.

“Blaze has alerted me when I was on the treadmill that I was dropping,” she says. “Or sometimes when I’ve been rowing, he’s come up and pawed me. It’s a smell thing. It’s so amazing that he can detect smells even at Orangetheory. There are more than 20 sweaty bodies emitting odours, and he’s specific just to mine.”

If Katherine were to have a seizure, the staff knows how to care for Blaze while she is treated by ambulance officers. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened yet.

Katherine had exercised throughout her life, but lung infections and subsequent pneumonia in July 2018 had left her short of breath and stamina.

“I thought I’d never be able to work out again,” she says.

But when the American Diabetes Association, where Katherine volunteers, was hosting a fundraiser at an Orangetheory Fitness, she figured she’d give the class a try. Katherine and Blaze took their first Orangetheory class in April.

“I committed to it,” she says, “and now I can do a whole class without stopping.” Indeed, now she works out six or more times per week (yes, per week).

The studios are “awesome,” she says. “If I need to leave class, my coaches make sure I’m OK. They still push me to my limits. They want me to push my PR (personal record) and to reach my goals. Other days, they’ll let me go and just power walk. They support me through everything.”

Then again, that’s not unique to Katherine, says Caitlin Donato, manager of the Template Design Team at Orangetheory’s Global Support Center.

“Workouts are designed to ensure people of all fitness levels walk out after a class feeling successful,” said Caitlin. If coaches notice a member hesitating or struggling, they can offer options for every movement. Plus, extensive ongoing training allows coaches to offer a personal trainer feeling in a group setting.

Early on in Katherine and Blaze’s voyage through Orangetheory, they only attended classes taught by one coach. Now Katherine is something of a celebrity. Other members know not to pet Blaze — after all, he’s working. But he does have his favourites, finding a way to stand by them during class. And more than a few members try to align their schedules with Katherine’s.

“I always ask, ‘Are you OK with dogs?’ And they’ve all said, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve been waiting for you to come to my class,’” she recalls. “Everyone has been fantastic; they’ve all liked him being there.”

By the time Katherine decided she needed a service dog, she’d already tried insulin pumps and continuous monitoring devices. Nothing helped. She has what’s called hypoglycemia unawareness, which means she’s not alerted to low blood sugar numbers by typical symptoms of dizziness, shakiness, sweating and rapid heart rate.

“I lived alone and was having seizures,” she says. “I wasn’t recognizing that I was having issues because I couldn’t feel the symptoms. I’d wake up on the floor with blood on my face.”

While Blaze was being trained, Katherine sent his trainer samples of her saliva when her blood sugar was normal, low and high. Blaze learned to sniff out what wasn’t in the normal range. Now that he and Katherine are a team, she has gone from having three to six seizures a month to having only three in the last 18 months.

“It’s a completely new life,” she says. “I’m in a state where I’m confident if something happens, I’m in great paws.”

“I’ve met some of my best friends through Orangetheory and they’ve helped me through so much,” she says. “The coaches and staff are amazing. Everyone is sweating and struggling together.”