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The Service Dog Assisting a Disabled Girl with Morquio Syndrome

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Two-year-old George is a hero in 11-year-old Bella Burton's life. George is Bella's constant companion, accompanying her to school, going with her to each class, sitting by her desk and always ready to lend support. A 131-pound Great Dane, George is a service dog who assists 44-pound Bella any time she needs to move from place to place.

According to Today Health and Wellness, over the past 9 years, Bella has had 9 major surgeries, some reconstructive. Bella was born with a rare disease called Morquio syndrome, a progressive genetic metabolic disease that affects approximately 1 in 200,000 children.

Understanding Morquio Syndrome

Morquio syndrome prevents the body from breaking down sugar chains that build bones, corneas, cartilage, skin and connective tissue because the body doesn't produce enough enzymes or the enzymes don't work properly. This allows sugar chains to collect in blood, connective tissue and cells, causing damage.

Symptoms of Morquio syndrome first manifest between the ages of 1 and 3. Some of the physical signs of the disease, according to The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, are:

  • short torso, short stature
  • bell-shaped chest
  • knock-knees
  • heart and vision problems possible
  • severe scoliosis, abnormal bone development
  • large head
  • widely spaced teeth

In Bella's case, she was 2 years old when her parents realized she was falling behind the growth curve. At that point nothing pointed directly to Morquio syndrome, so her doctor had genetic testing done, which revealed the answer to the problem.

Although doctors performed reconstructive surgery on her hips and feet, Bella still wasn't able to walk and used crutches to swing her legs rather than using them to help her walk. Her parents feared this could worsen her mobility problem by weakening Bella's leg muscles even further through lack of use.

George to the Rescue

The Burtons heard about the Service Dog Project in Massachusetts (Bella and George's story is featured on their home page); this organization trains Great Danes to help people with mobility or balance issues and donates the dogs to those in need. These gentle giants - George's back is the height of Bella's armpit - have easygoing, mild-mannered temperaments, love companionship and are protective, all of which makes them perfect service dogs.

When the Burtons took Bella to visit the Service Dog Project kennels, they noticed she was always happy when she was around the dogs. And the feeling for George was mutual - he wanted her to stay with him in his kennel. At that point, the decision was an easy one. Once a service dog is matched with a recipient, individualized training for the needs of the specific recipient takes place so that all special needs are met.

With George at the perfect height for 43-inch-tall Bella to lean comfortably on his back, in a relatively short time Bella was able to leave her crutches behind and walk tall with George's support. And that was just the beginning - after several months, Bella was able to run, something her mother never thought she'd be able to do.

Not only does George accompany Bella to school, he also goes to her medical appointments with her, lying next to her bed and patiently waiting while any procedures are being conducted. That includes a once-a-week six-hour medical procedure where Bella receives an infusion that gives her more energy. Although George wanted to protect Bella from having the IV inserted, he soon learned that it was necessary, and he allowed it without further protest.

George is now a full-fledged member of the Burton family and even sleeps beside Bella in her bed at night. Though Bella's future is uncertain - some Morquio patients live until their twenties and others are doing well in their forties - her parents make sure she is monitored by specialists regularly. And George, of course, is her ever-present hero, helping Bella achieve new goals and enjoy her childhood to the utmost.

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