By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 19, 2006
Belle Weaver is flying into the nation's capital today to receive an award for saving a family member's life. Before she leaves town, she'll meet with her congressman, accept a certificate autographed by a football great and bow her head to receive a medal.
Stories such as hers, of heroism and quick thinking, are always inspiring. But this one has a twist, and not just because Belle is 3 years old.
You see, Belle Weaver is a beagle. She used her owner's cellphone to call 911.
Her owner, Kevin Weaver, 34, was in the throes of a diabetic seizure, lying unconscious on his kitchen floor in Ocoee, Fla., when Belle located his phone and chomped down on the keypad, triggering a call.
The only thing emergency dispatchers heard was barking, but it was enough cause to send help, they reasoned. Weaver, a former flight attendant, woke up hours later in the hospital, weak and disoriented. Belle was there by his side, having finagled a ride in the ambulance.
Today the pint-size canine is taking a plane to Washington -- and not in the cargo hold, mind you -- to be honored. Belle will be the first animal to receive the VITA Wireless Samaritan Award, presented each year by the CTIA Wireless Foundation. The foundation honors those who use their wireless phones to save lives, stop crime or help in other emergencies. Cingular Wireless submitted Belle's nomination.
"We get that wireless is a new way for rude people to be rude to one another," said David Diggs, executive director of the Wireless Foundation, acknowledging that cellphones are known too often for shattering the peace in restaurants and on trains. "But at the same time, the safety benefits that this technology has brought, we think, are immeasurable."
It's not every day that a household pet saves a life. Cats are hardly so concerned with our general well-being, and goldfish, well, they're pretty much out of the running. But doctors told Weaver that had Belle not intervened before his roommates arrived home -- leaving Weaver alone for five hours on the kitchen floor with dangerously low blood sugar -- he probably wouldn't have made it.
"I would have died," said Weaver, still a bit incredulous about the whole experience. "I would have slipped into a coma and died."
For her part, Belle was hardly the pedigreed hero in waiting. In fact, as a puppy, she was returned to the pet store twice by dissatisfied buyers before Weaver's friend mentioned seeing the doggy in the window.
"I felt sorry for her," Weaver said about that encounter less than two years ago. "I went in and said, 'She's mine.' "
From that moment, Belle assumed the role of cherished pet. She had no special skills other than friendship. But as Weaver's lifelong struggle with diabetes got worse and he developed seizures, a frequent passenger on one of his flights suggested that he give Belle special training as a medical assistance dog.
The training for diabetic-alert dogs is not unlike the education provided to guide dogs for the visually impaired. But instead of learning to act as someone's guide, the animals are schooled to sense when their handlers' blood sugar is too high or low.
A beagle's sense of smell is many hundreds of times as strong as a human's. During her training, Belle was taught to lick Weaver's nostrils to smell his breath, reading his ketone level. If something isn't right, Belle knows to start scratching Weaver's leg, warning him to adjust his sugar levels before a seizure comes on. For a worst-case scenario, Belle was taught to bite down on Weaver's cellphone -- specifically on the number 9, which is programmed to dial 911.
The training was costly -- about $9,000 for nine months of intensive schooling -- but as it happened, it was worth every penny the morning of Feb. 7.
Weaver awoke feeling dizzy and nauseated. And Belle knew there was a problem.
"She started scratching at me and whining," Weaver recalled. "I thought maybe she had to go to the bathroom, not hitting on what was going on. I took her outside and brought her back in, and that's when I had the seizure."
It was the first seizure Weaver had had since Belle had completed her trained about eight months earlier. Weaver had wondered if any dog could be relied on to do a job that some adults would be too panicked for in a crisis.
But once Weaver collapsed, Belle was on it.
Weaver was discharged from the hospital that night. His first stop was a steakhouse, where he and Belle both enjoyed dinner.
His seizures have forced Weaver to give up his job with the airline. These days he works at Walt Disney World, where, years ago, he was employed to work with Pluto, one of the most famous dog characters, though hardly as smart as Belle.
Recently Disney arranged for Weaver to have a front-desk job where he could work with Belle, clad in her medical assistance vest, at his feet.
Belle will share the stage at Union Station with six of the 30 VITA award winners tonight. They include Jim Addington of Frederick, who used an Airfone on a commercial flight to talk with doctors on the ground and help a passenger suffering from a pulmonary embolism; and 10-year-old Josh Hartman of Silver Spring, who saved his father's life with a 911 call on a Firefly, a phone designed for children.
Weaver is certain of one thing about his dog.
"She loves me and I love her," Weaver said, talking on his cellphone. "She's my best friend, that's for sure."