For 12-year-old Charlotte Sessions, Baymax the 2-and-a-half year-old yellow Labrador Retriever is like a sibling. But Baymax also serves a very special purpose- one that could even save Charlotte’s life.
"If I have blood sugar go either high or low, I will ask her, 'Is there a problem, Baymax?' and I'll put out my hands," said Charlotte. "She'll go to my left hand if my blood sugar is low and to my right hand if my blood sugar is high."
Charlotte is Type 1 diabetic and Baymax is a medical service dog trained to detect Charlotte’s blood sugar based on the smell of her saliva. Charlotte said she named Baymax after the medical robot in the Disney movie Big Hero 6.
Baymax alerts Charlotte immediately to a change in blood sugar levels, usually by standing up, whimpering, or both.
Charlotte is a seventh grader at Lumpkin County Middle School. For the past two weeks, Baymax has been attending classes with Charlotte to get acclimated a little bit at a time.
So far, Baymax is in one class with Charlotte. The goal is for Baymax to eventually be with Charlotte all day. No matter where the pair is, Baymax stays right next to Charlotte.
"Each class is different because the layout of each class is different, but she'll either sit right next to me or she'll sit under my chair and we call it getting tiny," said Charlotte.
Baymax is the first medical service dog to work in the Lumpkin County School District. Prior to Baymax’s first day of school, Charlotte was tasked with creating a PowerPoint to educate her peers about Baymax.
Charlotte also worked with Lumpkin County Middle Principal Nathan Gerrells to create a video about Baymax, which was shown to the entire school during morning announcements.
Katie Lowry, special education director for the Lumpkin County School District, “co-wrote” a booklet with Baymax about her life as a medical service dog. She said Baymax has created an opportunity to educate students and staff on the purpose of service animals.
"So they can understand, really more than anything, Baymax goes into the community and there are service animals everywhere," said Lowry. "We want all of our students, whether they have disabilities or not, to understand that dog is working and that animal is working."
Baymax is from a company called Tattle Tail Scent Dogs in Salt Lake City. According to the company’s website, puppies are "scent imprinted" from a young age in order to become Diabetic Alert Dogs.
Katie Sessions, Charlotte’s mother, said their family traveled to Salt Lake City to pick up Baymax and train with her. They brought Baymax home to Georgia at nine weeks old.
After two more years of training, Sessions said Charlotte and Baymax are ready for the next step.
"We decided, really because Charlotte asked, 'Could I please try bringing her to school?'...so here we are!" said Sessions. "We're in the next phase of training, the next big task for Baymax and Charlotte."
Sessions said Baymax is already making a difference for Charlotte, after only two weeks in the classroom.
"It's allowed Charlotte to focus more on class instead of having to look at her blood sugar meter or maybe if she's distracted, not pay attention to a big high or low," said Sessions. "In Charlotte's case, this is helping her be more of a student and do the things that she needs to be doing."
She said her family has worked closely with staff at Lumpkin County Middle to make sure Baymax is an example of a service animal properly introduced into a learning environment.
So far there have been no setbacks- Charlotte said her peers and teachers have accepted Baymax. But she has learned how to be assertive if a curious onlooker, whether at school or in public, trys to pet Baymax when she is "working".
"If it's an adult, it's kind of harder for me to say, 'Please don't pet my dog, she's working,' because they all think, 'I can do whatever I want!'" said Charlotte. "But if it's a kid, I feel much more confident just to say, 'Please don't pet my dog, she's working.'"
Sessions said it is comforting to know Charlotte has someone to help her when she is not at home.
"Especially at school because it's somewhere I can't be," said Sessions. "As a parent, letting go is one of the hardest things, letting go when you have a medically fragile child is even harder. So this is kind of a way for her to fly from the nest and take more ownership and care, but also know that I have sent Baymax along by her side to keep her safe and watch out for her."