• 66°

Dog helps child with epilepsy

A little girl’s four-legged friend is being trained to help her live with a difficult diagnosis, and the training is being paid for in part by community donors.

Western Branch fourth-grader Anna Grace Atkins, 9, was diagnosed with a rare form of epilepsy three years ago called “sunflower syndrome.” Her parents, Beth Ann and Jeremy Atkins, saw the first signs of her condition four years ago when she began waving her hand in front of her face.

“I thought she was brushing her hair from her face and I would pin her hair back, but she kept doing it,” Beth Ann Atkins said.

A neighbor noticed Anna Grace’s behavior and found videos and articles about the condition online. Young children with “sunflower syndrome” experience the urge to face the sun and wave an open hand in front of their eyes, which induces seizures.

Anna Grace’s pediatrician referred her to a neurologist through the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk, where an EEG — electroencephalogram — recorded her brain activity. She was then sent home with a monitoring device.

The testing showed that she experienced seizures whenever she was outdoors.

“It’s basically a constant seizure the entire time she’s in sunlight,” Beth Ann Atkins said. “She will talk, and sometimes she’ll stop talking and not remember what she’s talking about.”

She also experiences several other types of seizures, such as “absence seizures,” indoors.

She has taken six different types of medications in the past four months, and while some of her seizures have been treatable, her outdoor seizures have been unwavering, Atkins said.

“It’s just not controlled by any medication so far,” she said.

As a student at Atlantic Shores Christian School’s Elementary Campus in Virginia Beach — where her mother is a teacher — Anna Grace is a tenacious student, according to Resource Director LaRita Smith.

But she suffers from symptoms of dyscalculia, or “math dyslexia,” and short-term memory loss.

“One of the biggest concerns with her reading is her comprehension,” Smith said. “She is a fluid reader, and can remember what we read and the depth of the story for a moment. But if you ask her 15 minutes later, depending of the time of day and how bad her seizures might have been, she may not have any recollection of having read the story.”

Beth Ann Atkins fears for her daughter in parking lots, where she’s oblivious to her surroundings. A recent EEG has revealed signs of a new type of seizure for her daughter that will require further testing.

Her concerns multiply as she keeps fighting for her daughter.

“It’s very hard to see her go through this, and she honestly doesn’t know or understand what’s going on,” she said. “She doesn’t understand how serious the things are that are going on in her brain.”

She and her husband learned through research that part of the solution to helping their daughter was a service dog.

A young, chocolate Labrador named Maggie is being trained to be Anna Grace’s service dog. She sleeps with Anna Grace for when she has seizures at night. In parking lots, Maggie will help guide her away from oncoming traffic.

“She’s going to be trained, in a sense, like a blind person’s service dog,” Atkins said.

Maggie has been training through the PAWS Training Center in Virginia Beach since May, PAWS trainer Gemma Soberano said in an email. The family meets with Soberano in public places like Home Depot or Mount Trashmore, where the dog can learn to walk with Anna Grace without being distracted.

The certification requires the dog to pass all four phases of the program. The dog must also have been in training for at least six months and be at least a year old, Soberano said.

The family has already raised more than $4,000 for Maggie’s training, and the remaining phases are expected to cost another $6,000, Atkins said. Fundraising has been done through youcaring.com, yard sales, restaurants nights and a purple pumpkin party. Purple is the awareness color for epilepsy.

“I’m ready for the peace of mind, and I’m ready to know that financially we’re going to be able to get through this,” Atkins said.

She is grateful for the support of the community so far but stressed that the fundraising needs to continue.

“We’re just at a point where I don’t know how we’re going to get through the next two phases,” she said.

Anna Grace and her 10-month-old dog have become nearly inseparable. Atkins recalled coming home from Anna Grace’s recent cheerleading competition in Florida with her fellow Atlantic Shores Christian cheerleaders. After being gone for five days, when Anna Grace sat on the couch in her pajamas, Maggie crawled right on top of her, Atkins said.

“She laid across Anna Grace’s lap for two hours, and Maggie’s eyes were just glued shut,” she said. “She definitely knows who she belongs to.”

Donations for the Atkins family can be made to the PAWS Training Centers’ headquarters at 1315 Lloyds Road, Nottingham, PA 19362, or online at the “Anna Grace + Maggie’s seizure response dog training” page at youcaring.com.