Shelby Myrick-Duckett’s health issues began with her hand cramping up during a particularly cold and wet cross country meet in Jefferson during the fall of 2016.

Someone got her a blanket, thinking it was the cold, but the cramps began to spread and she became confused. She doesn't have much awareness of what happened next, just flashes of being in an ambulance and then at a hospital.

"It was very cold and very wet, that's mostly what I remember," she said.

The incident was the first sign of an illness that would hit her so hard she would need an extra year to graduate high school.

At the hospital she was given potassium and told to go see her regular doctor. Unlike many people with mysterious medical conditions, Myrick-Duckett got answers fairly quickly: her endocrinologist diagnosed her with hypokalemic periodic paralysis, a rare condition where a person’s potassium will drop rapidly, causing severe cramps and, for Myrick-Duckett, even neurological effects. 

“You need (potassium),” said Myrick-Duckett. “If you have too little of it, your muscles start cramping up and your heart cramps up.”

She said the potassium drops occur randomly, but there are triggers like exercise and the weather.

Myrick-Duckett said since only about 3,000 people in the United States have the condition, many doctors don’t know to look for it. However, Myrick-Duckett’s dad has the condition too, and since it is genetic, her doctor knew to look for it.

“It’s rare for it to be figured out so quickly,” she said.

Myrick-Duckett said although her dad has the condition, he didn’t have a diagnosis when she was little, so even though she had a reference point she didn’t know exactly how the condition would affect her.

“You’re sort of like, 'What can I do with this and how does my life look different?'” she said.

Although Myrick-Duckett, then a junior at Santiam Christian School, had been “a straight-A student since kindergarten," she began having nearly weekly episodes where her potassium suddenly dropped and she began experiencing severe cramps and confusion, which necessitated emergency room visits and left her feeling extremely fatigued.

Kelly Myrick, Myrick-Duckett’s mom, said when her daughter has a severe issue with her potassium dropping, it can take her a week to recover.

“It was so difficult to see,” said Myrick.

Myrick-Duckett tried to continue going to school, but she wasn’t getting better as she began the second semester of her junior year in 2017. She eventually moved in with her grandparents temporarily to recover with their full-time care.

As she struggled with her health issues, Myrick-Duckett fell so far behind she had to repeat her junior year.

But when she started that year over again, she did so with a new ally: a golden retriever and poodle mix named Doodlebug.

Medical alert dog

Myrick-Duckett said as she was researching her condition after her diagnosis she read a news article about someone with hypokalemic periodic paralysis who had a medical alert dog help give them an early warning.

Myrick-Duckett said diabetics can use a glucometer to check their blood sugar, but there is no similar device for testing potassium levels in blood for people like her. Although she read about places that train service dogs to alert to low-potassium episodes, none are in this region. So she began working to get a pre-trained service dog, and when she got Doodlebug in the summer of 2017, she began working with Dogs for Invisible Disabilities in Lebanon to train him.

Myrick-Duckett began collecting samples of her sweat and saliva when she was having a low-potassium episode, and with the help of a trainer she taught Doodlebug to recognize how she smelled when she had a hypokalemic issue so he could alert her with a signal, such as a whimper or a paw on her leg.

When she’s warned she’s about to have an issue early, she can begin taking prescription potassium pills to avert the worst of her symptoms.

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Myrick-Duckett said around 90% of the time Doodlebug warns her she needs potassium before she’s noticed any of the physical effects of her potassium dropping suddenly.

“Since she’s gotten Doodlebug,” said Myrick, “it’s been a complete turnaround.”

Myrick said Doodlebug has kept her daughter out of the hospital numerous times. Myrick said in the year before Doodlebug, her daughter had four emergency room visits. In the nearly two years since, she's only had two.

Myrick added that her daughter deserves all the credit for finding a way to address her health issues.

“She’s always going to have to deal with it, but now she knows how to deal with it and that makes all the difference,” she said.

Myrick-Duckett said before Doodlebug she was having hypokalemic issues severe enough to keep her out of school at least one day every week. Now, she's only missing about one day every month.

With Doodlebug's help, she repeated her junior year and is now on track to walk with Santiam Christian’s class of 2019 in its graduation ceremony June 1. She’s also planning to go to Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash., this fall.

Myrick said she’s very proud of her daughter.

“The setbacks have been very hard to see, very painful to see, but to see her spirit is still there and that she’s been able to overcome things has been lovely."

'One day at a time'

Although college-bound, Myrick-Duckett said there have been some challenges. Making and keeping friends has been difficult with her health issues, and the students she's known since she was a kindergartener all graduated a year before she did. She’s also had to rule out medical school, which had been her plan before.

“My body cannot handle the stress of medical school. I cannot change that. I’ve had to change my plans,” she said.

She said she’s also learned to change her attitude to focus more on the present.

“Before I got sick I had a very specific life to-do list, but … now I take it one day at a time,” she said. “It’s not like in five years I’ll be married and have a job and can be happy. I’ve learned I need to be happy now.”

In this, Doodlebug has been helpful too: “Getting a dog is a great motivator because you need to get up every day and walk and feed him.”

Having a service dog has also been a challenge, she said, because she’s a natural introvert and having a service dog always draws attention.

Myrick said her daughter has had to learn to be an advocate for herself and her dog, and she’s really proud of them both.

“I could go on and on about how amazing she is. I’m pretty proud of her. It’s going to be amazing to see what she does with the rest of her life."

Despite her setbacks, Myrick-Duckett is excited and optimistic about college.

“I can do it. It may not be the same way as everyone else, but I can do it.”

And she’s already been working with Whitworth to make plans for bringing Doodlebug to college with her.

“Doodelbug is one of the reasons why I’m still here and going to graduate. He’s wonderful. He’s my best friend. He’s a complete dork, but I love him.”

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Anthony Rimel covers weekend events, education, courts and crime and can be reached at anthony.rimel@lee.net, 541-758-9526, or via Twitter @anthonyrimel.