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Katie Koval

KatieThis summer, Katie Koval, 18, moved out on her own. Though a typical rite of passage for many young adults, it was a significant turning point for Katie.

When Katie was 15, she was diagnosed with epilepsy. After going through a long journey of diagnosis, treatment, and learning how to deal with long-term effects, moving out on her own is a symbol of the long way she’s come.

When Katie first started getting seizures, doctors couldn’t figure out what was causing her condition. Eventually she underwent brain surgery, which helped to stabilize the seizures, but the surgery resulted in permanent brain damage which causes her short-term memory and balance problems. The seizures still pose significant risk for Katie.

“Getting Rosie has definitely enabled me to go out and pursue the life I’ve always wanted to live. She gives me confidence to go out into the world. I know I’ll be safer with her.”

When Ann Arbor CIL staff member Jen Chapin-Smith first met Katie, she informed her that people with challenges related to seizures often use service dogs. Dogs can provide advanced assistance for individuals with epilepsy.

With Jen’s advice, Katie acquired Rosie, a black lab who is being trained as Katie’s social support and seizure alert dog. Because humans emit a certain scent before having a seizure, when Rosie is fully trained, she will be able to detect the scent and warn Katie to get to a safe position before the seizure takes place. This will prevent Katie from having a seizure in an unsafe location, such as while crossing the street, or climbing the stairs.

When fully trained, Rosie will be able to help Katie with a number of other things. Because of her brain-damage, Katie often has a hard time remembering to take her anti-seizure medication at the right time, and when she walks even short distances, she has a hard time staying oriented or remembering how to return where she came from. Rosie can help Katie remember to take her anti-seizure medication, and she can also help Katie keep her bearings and remember how to get back to her starting point. Rosie may also be able to help her drive safely one day. Katie had to give up her learner’s permit when she was 15 due to the epilepsy, and service dogs can sometimes help individuals qualify to drive.

“Having epilepsy has been quite a journey, but I’ve come out stronger and with a willingness to work hard. I have learned not to take one single day for granted, and I am so thankful to be able to wake up in the morning and feel healthy.”

One of the unexpected benefits of having Rosie has been the signal that she provides to others. “When I go out, often times it’s hard to know how to tell people that I have a disability,” Katie said. “Because Rosie wears a service dog jacket, she’s a natural ice-breaker. It’s so much easier to say ‘I have a disability’ in this way.”

“There have been a couple of moments when I’ve realized just how much Rosie helps me. There are so many unexpected and scary things that can come up with my condition. Before I got her, I never wanted to leave the house. Now with Rosie, I’m not afraid to go out.”

Katie, a dancer since the age of four, had to give up a career in ballet after the brain surgery, due to the balance problems it caused. Katie has found an unexpected love of world dance, though, and is now involved in African, Middle Eastern, and Indian dancing. She teaches at a number of dance studios around Ann Arbor.

Katie is a winner of the CIL’s John Weir Academic Scholarship and has been involved in the CIL’s youth programming. She attributes the CIL with providing significant emotional and social support for her. Katie is now a first year student at Eastern Michigan University, majoring in international affairs. She speaks Mandarin and is looking to become a professional translator.

When reflecting on the journey epilepsy has taken her on, Katie says, “I’ve had my moments. Frustration, anger, discomfort, and pain. I would be lying if I said it hasn’t been a challenge. But I have days when I can’t believe how far I’ve come.”