Diagnosed with Dravet syndrome as an infant, Giovanni Bajer will likely have seizures for the rest of his life — pup Gracie ensures he won't face them alone
Rescue German shepherd Gracie instinctively started helping 4-year-old Giovanni Bajer from the moment she met him.
The introduction occurred at Big Dog Ranch Rescue in Loxahatchee Groves, Florida, on a hot day in June. Giovanni and his parents, Jared and Danitza Bajer, were at the rescue searching for a young dog suitable for seizure alert dog training. Giovanni regularly experiences seizures due to Dravet syndrome, a rare and severe form of epilepsy that the boy was diagnosed with as an infant.
When it came time to meet Gracie, Giovanni was irritable from being out in the sun. Shortly after the puppy arrived, Giovanni, who is nonverbal, threw the tablet he uses to communicate to the ground, Danitza, the boy's mom, tells PEOPLE.
"When Giovanni screamed, cried, and threw his tablet, Gracie didn't flinch or run away," Danitza, 34, says. "Gracie instinctively put her head into my son, licked his face, and comforted him."
"I said, 'Wow! That is our dog,'" she adds of Gracie's adoption day.
During the ride from Big Dog Ranch Rescue to the Bajer family's home in Boca Raton, Gracie, now 10 months, and Giovanni held hands. The connection between the duo continued to grow fast in the days after Gracie moved in.
"I noticed how naturally Gracie watched Giovanni both inside and outdoors, basically following him around," Danitza says. "I could tell Giovanni, who remains nonverbal, really loved her."
Since arriving at the Bajer home — which also includes Giovanni's 1-year-old brother Christian — Gracie has started seizure alert dog training with Carrie MonteLeon, owner of Alpha Dog Training in Hobe Sound.
Unfortunately, Giovanni and his family are familiar with seizures. Giovanni had his first seizure in November 2019, after his 4-month check-up. In the following days, Danitza noticed that he had occasional minor body twists.
"I thought I was being overly protective until he started seizing again three weeks later and was diagnosed with epilepsy and given medications," she says. "I asked the neurologist what to do if he had another seizure at home and was told it would be extremely rare to have another on the medication prescribed. On Christmas Eve, he had another grand mal seizure."
After seeing four neurologists who prescribed a variety of different medications that didn't work and had terrible side effects, Giovanni saw a fifth who sent for a genetic panel that found a mutation of the boy's SCN1A gene. In January 2020, a sixth neurologist diagnosed Giovanni with Dravet syndrome linked to the genetic mutation.
"This meant our sweet boy would continue to have terrible seizures and could possibly suffer severe physiological and developmental delays and regressions with age," Danitza says.
"The doctor said the genetic mutation for this disease is not inherited. It is spontaneous, and nobody on either side of the family has ever had it," she adds.
After his diagnosis, Giovanni's epilepsy became so severe that he sometimes had over 200 seizures in a day, with some that lasted over an hour.
In November 2021, Giovanni had VNS (vagus nerve stimulator) implant surgery to decrease the number of daily seizures. Today, it is common for Giovanni to have a handful of seizures a week.
"The stimulator improved his quality of life by decreasing the number and duration of his seizures, but they still impacted his daily life," Danita says.
Since Giovanni has a high risk of sudden death due to his epilepsy, Danitza and Jared, a customs and border protection specialist, are by their son's side constantly. Lori Griffith, the founder of the Chasin A Dream Foundation in Florida, suggested the couple look into a seizure alert dog to help them watch over Giovanni.
Prior to this idea, Griffith and Chasin A Dream Foundation — a nonprofit Griffith created in 2017 to assist families with children battling life-threatening illnesses — had helped the Bajer family by raising funds to cover Giovanni's expensive medications and supplies.
"Dravet syndrome is such a horrible condition, and I knew getting Giovanni a dog that could be trained to help would be life-changing for him and his family," Griffith says.
The founder matched the family with MonteLeon, who advised the Bajers to look at shelters for a pup for her to train.
MonteLeon, who has trained over 12,000 dogs, started working with Gracie three days after the puppy's adoption.
The first weeks of training were devoted to distraction and avoidance, teaching Gracie to ignore sight, sounds, and activities that took her attention away from Giovanni.
Gracie then moved on to scent training, learning to sniff out Giovanni's scent (provided via a saliva sample) amongst other distracting odors. Knowing Giovanni's scent helps Gracie detect the shift in the child's pheromones that precedes a seizure.
"The scent hormones change and help Gracie detect that Giovanni is going to have a seizure," MonteLeon explains. "She only responds to Giovanni's pheromones that he gives off before and during a seizure."
Seizure training also includes teaching Gracie to stand in front of Giovanni when he is falling during a seizure, brace Giovanni while he is having a seizure, and lick at the boy's nose and mouth to stimulate breathing during a seizure.
"Gracie is so far along in her training and is progressing at a phenomenal rate," MonteLeon says. "It is extraordinarily rewarding to give this family a better quality of life."
Adopted in late June, Gracie started jumping to help Giovanni with seizures by July.
"She licked his head, face, and palms and brought him back into consciousness," Danitza says of the puppy's reaction to one of Giovanni's seizures in July.
Just a few weeks ago, the German shepherd communicated to Danitza that a seizure was coming.
"Gracie refused to leave Giovanni's room when I put him to bed," Danitza says of the moment. "I was trying to get her out of the room, but she kept coming back and wouldn't budge."
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Danitza didn't know what to make of the dog's unusually rebellious behavior until moments later when Giovanni had a seizure.
"Shortly after, I was on the phone with Carrie when Giovanni had a grand mal seizure in his sleep," Danitza says. "Gracie and I were able to respond immediately and stop the seizure quickly. I am so grateful that Gracie is a part of our family and is already providing life-saving measures for Giovanni. Our family feels complete now."
Adds Griffith: "Gracie is like no other dog I have ever seen. I believe she was born to do what she is doing."
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