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From man's best friend to potential lifesaver

  • Joe Johnson, seen holding niece Genna Gibson, is a Type I diabetic who broke his shoulder during a low-sugar episode. Friends and family across Southern Illinois are rallying behind Johnson to raise the $20,000 needed to get him a diabetic alert dog.

    Joe Johnson, seen holding niece Genna Gibson, is a Type I diabetic who broke his shoulder during a low-sugar episode. Friends and family across Southern Illinois are rallying behind Johnson to raise the $20,000 needed to get him a diabetic alert dog.
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updated: 3/20/2017 11:50 AM

While dogs are often known as "man's best friend," for Walnut Hill native Joe Johnson, the new furry friend he hopes to get could mean the difference between life and death.

The 33-year-old General Tire employee was diagnosed with Type I diabetes when he was just 10 months old.

"I had to learn to give him an insulin shot before we could bring him home," says Johnson's mom, Carol Garrison.

Johnson and Garrison know first-hand the dangers of diabetes.

"We lost Joe's dad to the disease," Garrison says. "I worry about Joe now that he lives alone."

As it turns out, that worry has a foundation. On Dec. 3, Johnson suffered a low-sugar episode that caused him to fall and break his shoulder. Johnson says this is a danger no matter how well you take care of yourself.

"I've been dealing with it (diabetes) my whole life," he says. "Every day is a fight. It's just a never-ending battle."

Johnson has learned to manage the disease that inhibits his pancreas from producing insulin. Insulin is a hormone that allows the body to use sugar from carbohydrates for energy or to store glucose for future use. External conditions such as temperature, exercise and stress can affect blood sugar levels.

When insulin or sugar levels are uncontrolled, the results can be catastrophic and affect virtually every major system in the body. Johnson's dad lost his legs before finally losing his battle with the disease.

No matter how well a person may monitor the condition, it's a delicate balance that can change in a matter of minutes.

"He might be almost 34 years old," Garrison says, "but he'll always be my baby. I worry about him living alone."

After Johnson's accident that has placed him on short-term disability, his aunt, Barb Johnson, had an idea.

"When she heard I fell and broke my shoulder, she came over and talked to me about getting a diabetic alert dog," Johnson says. "We looked online and found a company."

Garrison says the family considered this option in the past, but it was cost-prohibitive.

"The dogs are about $25,000," she says.  Insurance does not cover the cost of service animals.

However, Johnson's church family in Thompsonville, along with other friends and family across Southern Illinois, has stepped in to help with that.

The Community of Christ Church will hold a "Trivia Night" this Saturday. Billy Bob's BBQ will provide food. There is a cash prize for the winning team. Tables of up to eight persons can play for $100 a table. Johnson's aunt is accepting reservations at 618-604-9559.

Johnson's friends in Charleston, owners of Poor Boys Tattoos, are holding a raffle through March 31, featuring several prizes including an eight-hour tattoo session with award-winning tattoo artist Johnny Wilder.

A crowd-funding page has been set up for Johnson at youcaring.com. Visitors there can search for "Joe Needs a D.A.D." There is also a Facebook page under the same name. Direct donations are being accepted at Midland States Bank, 200 S. Poplar in Centralia. Checks should be payable to "Joseph Johnson Fund."

Efforts already have raised more than $6,000, enough for the down payment required to get Johnson on the waiting list for his yellow Labrador.

Johnson will get his new friend from Diabetic Alert Dogs of America. According to their website, the dogs are trained to alert their diabetic handlers of blood sugar events before they become dangerous. The use of a service dog can provide quality of life by providing independence and companionship, as well as lifesaving abilities.

Once Johnson moves from the two-month waiting list, his dog will begin the six to eight months of training before coming to Illinois from the Las Vegas facility.

Johnson's friends are confident they can raise the funds to help their friend maintain a safe and independent style of living.

As for Johnson, he is overwhelmed by the efforts.

"I just really appreciate everyone giving their time and effort to this done for me," he says.  "It's surely a blessing to have friends and family."