Due to an extremely rare medical condition, this teenager is constantly in danger of being rushed to the hospital simply from being exposed to a strong smell – but now, a canine companion has given her an entirely new leash on life.
15-year-old Martina Baker sufferers from a condition called Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS). It makes her allergic to “almost everything” including heat, water, cleaning products, perfumes and cologne. Even a whiff of cooking oils or bleach could send Martina into anaphylactic shock, and if she doesn’t receive treatment quickly, she could die.
Now, after raising $10,000 USD, Martina has been partnered with a highly-trained pup named Caiomhe (pronounced Queeva) who alerts her to possible dangers before they occur.
Thanks to Caiomhe, Martina has been able to revisit dozens of normal life activities, such as being able to enjoy a movie theater screening for the first time in years.
“Caiomhe has changed my life,” said Martina. “I feel so much safer with her around, I am able to have a social life again.
“I lost a lot of friends after I developed MCAS. It’s hard for people to handle, for them to watch me collapse and have to take my EpiPen and be rushed to hospital all the time,” added the teen from Wiscasset.
Up until two and a half years ago, Martina was a completely healthy teenager – but then, she suddenly became plagued with terrifying symptoms.
“I wasn’t allergic to anything before, then one day I woke up with hives all over my body,” says the teen. “I had to go to the hospital because I had an anaphylactic reaction. My throat started swelling up with hives. They treated me with an EpiPen.”
Martina’s 48-year-old mother Loretta Morse Leighton said: “The hives would flare up all the time, she’d go into anaphylactic shock and we’d to have to rush her to the ER about three times a week. We never knew what was triggering it really.”
For months, doctors were baffled by Martina’s condition. Because of the reactions, Martina was forced to miss school and stay at home in a sealed room in order to avoid anaphylactic shocks.
“We took her to see a specialist in every major discipline, everything from cardiologists to psychologists,” said Loretta, who eventually took Martina to an immunologist in Massachusetts who correctly diagnosed her with MCAS.
After Martina finally received a diagnosis, Leighton realized that a service dog might help her daughter.
Caiomhe was trained by Jamie Robinson, a specialist in Tucson, Arizona – one of the only people in the world to train dogs to assist MCAS patients.
“A dog’s nose is about 100,000 times better than a human nose and just about every biochemical process in our bodies is indicated with a change in scent,” said Robinson, who runs her own service dog business called Access to Service Corp.
Robinson had Martina send her pieces of clothing she had worn so Caiomhe could get used to her scent and the specific smell of the teenager’s anaphylaxis. The pup was then trained to identify a long list of smells that are life-threatening triggers for Martina.
Because 3-year-old Caiomhe can smell the release of histamine from Martina’s body, the pup can now detect when her owner is having a reaction before anyone even realizes it. Thanks to Caiomhe and regular mast cell stabilizing drugs, Martina’s anaphylactic episodes have reduced from three times a week to once every four to six weeks.
Martina often wears a mask when she goes outside and the family still has to be very careful in their home. Loretta cleans with vinegar instead of cleaning products and has stopped using all detergents on sheets and clothing. They must practice “odorless cooking” and spend a lot of time grilling outside, even in winter.
Martina is also extremely sensitive to warmth, so her bedroom isn’t heated at all, even during the freezing Maine winters.
“I don’t know how she tolerates the cold, she lives like a penguin in there,” laughed Loretta.
But despite these difficulties, Martina’s livelihood has been totally transformed.
“I feel that Caiomhe was destined to be my daughter’s guardian angel,” says Leighton. “In the pictures of Martina now with Caiomhe, I see joy, light and life. A spark that has been missing and robbed from her since this awful disease has taken ahold of her. Caiomhe brought that back to her in a new, wonderful and amazing way.”
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