When he was seven years old, Joel Wilcox of Blacklick became one of the estimated 2.2 million people living with epilepsy in the U.S. It’s a life-changing diagnosis, but the most drastic shift for Joel came four years later when his condition suddenly worsened. He went from having a manageable form of the neurological disorder to suffering tonic-clonic seizures every 20 to 30 minutes. He was forced to leave school in fifth grade, and he could no longer shower by himself or sleep alone, as his most severe seizures occurred at night. He couldn’t even walk from the couch to the bathroom because his epilepsy struck so often and without notice.
“When your child has really dangerous seizures, there’s no warning and you kinda live life on the edge of your seat constantly,” said his mother, Amy Wilcox. Her son was homebound for most of the next two years, missing sixth and seventh grades in the process.
During one of the countless hospital visits to try to rein in his condition, Amy made a discovery that changed his life again, this time for the better. She walked by a sign on a hospital door that read “Dog working” and asked a nurse about it. A woman named Marsha was in Joel’s room within five minutes, her daughter’s medical service dog perched on his bed. She explained the role of such dogs for conditions like epilepsy, as well as the benefits for the child and the family.
With help from his medical team, Joel’s convulsive seizures abated nearly two years ago and gave way to a less severe cluster variety called atypical absence seizures. Excited about the chance to help him regain his lost autonomy, the family reached out to 4 Paws for Ability, a nonprofit organization in Xenia that trains dogs to assist those with medical conditions like autism, hearing impairment, and epilepsy. He was matched with Flame, a five-pound, long-haired, big-eared Papillon that had been tailored specifically to Joel through extensive training. Flame barks loudly to alert others anytime Joel has a seizure, and she can also give a pre-alert signal if she senses an oncoming episode so that they can sit him down and keep him safe. The dog allows him to shower, sleep, and do some activities on his own again, and she provides the family with peace of mind.
“Flame gives me more independence, and she gives me the confidence to go to school and be more active,” Joel said. He returned for eighth grade, carrying the dog with him in a backpack.
Amy said that the seizure-assistance dog also offered stress relief for Joel as he transitioned to life in middle school after not having been in class since fifth grade. When he’s confronted with a situation that makes him uncomfortable, or someone who doesn’t understand his condition, Flame can provide a social bridge.
“If they have a furry friend, things become a lot more inviting, then the social interactions happen more often and give them that opportunity to build relationships that way,” Amy said. He has since moved on to his freshman year at Licking Heights, where they held a fundraiser and an educational program to introduce Joel and acclimate students to the role of seizure-assistance dogs like Flame.
To continue raising awareness, Joel was recently featured in Medikidz, a comic book that explains a wide range of medical issues to children. Joel and Flame star in “Medikidz Explain Seizure-Assistance Dogs,” the second issue of the epilepsy series.
Amy wants the comic to spread the word about the availability of options like service dogs for families with epileptic children because she never would have known about them had she not stumbled across one in a hospital. She also hopes that it removes some of the stigma surrounding epilepsy.
“Once kids can understand something, then they’re not afraid of it anymore, or they’re less likely to make fun of it,” she said.
It seems to be working for Joel. The most common reaction at school? Awww, I wish I had that dog.
Medikidz is now looking for a new young person to feature in the next book in the series through its “Search for the Next Medikidz Star” contest. To learn more or to order a copy of “Medikidz Explain Seizure-Assistance Dogs visit advancingepilepsycare.com. For more info about 4 Paws for Ability, check out 4pawsforability.org.