For Sara Atkins, a decent night’s sleep is something of a rarity. She spends most nights lying awake, worrying about her 9-year-old daughter Freida, her ears straining to catch the first sign of a faint cough or a too-quiet breath.
But with the anticipated help of Bravo, a 2-year-old Australian labradoodle, the Wynnewood resident can rest a bit easier.
Freida has idiopathic anaphylaxis — she has extreme allergic reactions to unknown causes. There’s no exact way to cure her condition because each patient reacts differently.
Since the day she was born, Freida has consistently had severe reactions to food and other allergies. She’s been in and out of doctors’ offices and hospital beds since she was 16 months old. After years of testing, doctors told Sara that Freida was a “full-bucketer,” suggesting that Freida’s immune system is like a full bucket of water under a faucet, and any extra drop spills right over the top, resulting in anaphylaxis.
Bravo is a trained service dog from Angel Service Dogs in Colorado that will be able to pick up on scents that Freida is allergic to and alert her to avoid them.
This kind of support and detection doesn’t come cheap, though: To secure the services of Bravo, the Atkins family had to come up with the $20,000 fee in 18 months.
Thanks to the family’s efforts — and the generous support of family, friends and community — it took only a year to raise the money to train and work with Bravo. Sara said the family has received just more than $23,000; the extra money will go toward the travel expenses to pick up Bravo this summer.
Part of the reason the family’s fundraising effort has been so successful is because it has been an interactive one. Sara created a Facebook group, Mitzvah for Freida Rochel, so people could receive updates about Bravo but also know when Freida has reactions so they could pray for her.
“I can’t do anything except put faith in God that she is in the right place and the right people are treating her,” Sara said. “It doesn’t hurt to have some extra prayers going.”
Friends, family and even strangers who heard Freida’s story pitched in by participating in fundraisers such as benefit concerts by the group 8th Day, events at Painting With A Twist or Freida’s father’s own idea of letting people vote on a bright color to dye his hair for every $18 raised (hot pink is in the lead). Some children even donated to the cause for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah projects.
Alongside her idiopathic anaphylaxis, Freida endures Tourette syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety disorders.
All but one of Sara’s five children also have Tourette syndrome and OCD.
Freida’s condition mixed with anxiety is a dangerous combination. Last summer, for instance, she was hospitalized again, experiencing severe hives and reactions. Coincidentally, a teenage mentor of Freida’s was also in the hospital at the same time.
The two visited each other and, in just a few minutes, Sara said she visibly saw an immediate change in Freida — her daughter’s hives dissipated as her anxiety faded.
Anxiety attacks increase the level of histamines in the body — which Freida already creates too much of on her own — and can trigger her anaphylaxis. But having a friend to calm her nerves directly diminished her reaction symptoms.
“You’re going to have your lows where [she’s] reacting, and you’re going to have your highs where nobody will know she’s a sick kid,” she said.
Even though the two have not met yet, Sara knows Bravo will also tame Freida’s anxiety. She said Freida had a bad reaction in the fall that kept reappearing for two months. Whenever Freida’s anxiety was high during a reaction, Sara showed her a video of Bravo with his trainer that said he wished her to feel better.
“When she’s reacting, she plays it over and over and over, and it calms her because she knows Bravo already loves her,” Sara said.
Initially, Sara didn’t like the idea of a new furry member of the family. Dan, Sara’s husband, is a dog lover, but Sara is not. But when she heard about what Bravo could do, she was the one to approach him about the idea.
“To know that Bravo is there sleeping right next to her, I can breathe a little,” she said. “I can let her be a kid. She can have a little bit of freedom to do things that she doesn’t normally get to do.”
Once they make the journey to Colorado, the family will train with Bravo for about a week.
“Bravo is a tool in our toolbox,” she said. “By taking away those trace elements, we take a little water out of that bucket.”
Freida was also granted a wish from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and Sara said Freida wants to go to Walt Disney World.
“I couldn’t even imagine a trip like that without Bravo right by our side,” Sara said.