MARTIN COUNTY — Earlier this week, Lexy Harris met the Labrador retriever that might one day save her life.
Lexy, 4, has Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy that causes frequent, life-threatening seizures that can require immediate medical attention.
Her parents can't tell when she's about to have a seizure and prepare ahead of time, but her new seizure alert dog, Kiki, can.
"Kiki sees a world we don't see, and she sees it with her nose," said her trainer Laurie Volpe, of Canine Specialty Training, L.L.C. "And that's what we're training her to do."
Volpe, who has trained Kiki for months, has been working with Kiki and the Harrises all week to help the dog bond with her new family.
Kikimet the Harrises for the first time Monday at the Blake Library in Stuart.
Lexy ran into the room and plunked herself down on the floor next to Kiki, her long red and white polka-dot dress settling over the big dog's front paws.
Her father, Josh Harris, a 22-year-old specialist with the Army's 101st Combat Aviation Brigade who is scheduled to ship out to Afghanistan on his second deployment soon, followed.
One-year-old Kiki is in the first stage of her training, Volpe said, learning about 60 voice commands that will help her aid her new family.
To demonstrate one, Volpe took a landline telephone, showed it to the dog, and then placed it on a table across the room.
"Get it — phone!" she said.
Kiki bounded over to the table, grabbed the phone in her mouth, and then ran back to Volpe, tail wagging, and placed it in her hand.
With the "phone" command, when Josh Harris is deployed and Lexy has a seizure, her mother Felicia Harris, 23, won't have to leave her daughter's side to call for emergency help.
Because Lexy sometimes stops breathing in a seizure, minutes count.
Felicia Harris said looking after Lexy while her husband is gone can be especially hard.
It was during his last, yearlong deployment to Afghanistan that she became determined to get a service dog. She appeared on TV news broadcasts and set up a website to raise money.
The Fisher House Foundation, which works with the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide free, temporary homes called Fisher Houses to military families with a loved one hospitalized at a military medical center, donated $4,000 to help the Harrises get a medical alert dog.
So the family drove from Kentucky to Florida.
Volpe said the Harrises are preparing now for the advanced stage of Kiki's training, which will develop her scent recognition.
When Lexy has a seizure, her parents swab her hands, feet and mouth with cotton pads, and save the swabs in a plastic bag.
"The bag will be frozen," said Volpe, "and we'll train with three different bags. In two will be a bunch of plain swabs, but the third one might be from when Lexy had a seizure. When (Kiki) IDs that one, she's rewarded for it."
Once the training is over, Volpe said, Kiki will be able to let Felicia or Josh Harris know when Lexy's about to have a seizure, and, on command, lead them to her.
"It will change my life so much," Felicia Harris said. "I can't have my eyes on her all the time. I'll turn around to do the laundry or something, and then find her on the floor, turning blue."
Lexy's seizures can occur at any time, Felicia Harris said, and she'll never forget the first one.
Lexy was about 2 months old, and Felicia Harris was playing with her on the bed when something odd happened — the baby's right arm shot straight up in the air and started twitching.
Felicia Harris said she knew instantly that her daughter was having a seizure.
She and her husband drove Lexy to the emergency room, and soon after they arrived, the family was surrounded by doctors and nurses.
"The way they all acted — they called code blue two times," Felicia Harris said. "They had the whole ER in there."
Felicia Harris has spent much of her time since that day fighting for her daughter — taking her to multiple doctors to get a definitive diagnosis, struggling to get her the expensive medications she needs, and now, getting her Kiki.
After a long training session at the library on Friday, Josh Harris was impressed by how quickly Kiki learned.
The family spent part of the afternoon working on the "up — push!" command, that gets Kiki to jump up against the push-button for a handicapped-accessible door.
Josh said thanks to his wife's efforts, he'll have to worry a little bit less when he's in Afghanistan."It's something she's been working on for a while," he said. "It'll help a lot."
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