At Your Service: Meet Nelson, the Newest Member of Fisher's Track Team

November 21, 2019

It’s a typical scene in the dining hall after late afternoon practices: Fisher student-athletes gathering with teammates to enjoy dinner together, along with some down time. What is not so typical is seeing a four-legged member of the team dining right alongside them.

Alyson Witt with her service dog, Nelson.

Enter Nelson, first-year student Alyson Witt’s service dog, and the newest member of Fisher’s women’s track and field team.

Witt was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of nine, the result of a malfunction of her pancreas and its inability to secrete the hormone insulin. When she was first diagnosed, she was often told that she would likely not be able to play any sports. Fast forward to her success as an intercollegiate athlete, which she admits is a challenge at times, but is in “no way” impossible.

“I am a strong believer that everything is what you make of it, so I do my best to embrace it and make myself better,” she said.

Lucky for her, Nelson is helping to make things better, too. He is trained to sense when her blood sugar is low or high to help prevent her from fainting or experiencing a seizure. He alerts her by barking if she is not too close to him, and pawing her if she is. An English and American lab mix, Nelson has a strong sense of smell, which is how he is able to detect her blood sugar levels.

Most recently, Witt was asleep but had a severely low blood sugar and was not responding to her alarms. Nelson woke her up and stayed with her through her immediate recovery. A similar incident happened at a recent practice. Witt felt fine, but Nelson knew her level was low and alerted her. Eventually, he will be trained to call 911 if she is ever unresponsive.

For Witt, each day is planned around this disease, in particular around meals and practice times. She is constantly working to make sure her blood sugars are in range and that it is safe for her to practice. She says that even after dealing with it in her daily life for the past nine years, she is still learning, especially as she navigates through college life.

“Coming to college brought a lot of changes that I had to adapt to, some days are better than others. There are some days where I will randomly drop severely low and will need help from others, and other days are completely fine,” she said.

That’s where her roommate comes in. Yes, Nelson lives in Murphy! In fact, he is big dog on campus to some.

“Service dogs are truly incredible and have changed the lives of so many people. The abilities they have been trained for are amazing,” she said. “I am so thankful to how welcoming and embracing everyone on campus has been with Nelson. He has become quite the little celebrity!”

Despite the urge by many to approach and play with Nelson, Witt does have some advice and a request.

“He cannot be pet or played with while he is wearing his vest. Since he is still in training, when people do this, it confuses him and makes his training a little harder,” she said.

But when the vest comes off, he can often be seen playing fetch with members of the cross country team on their course behind Murphy.

“I cannot thank my coaches and teammates enough for being so supportive; I am so thankful. They have been with me every step of the way, and have been so welcoming and loving towards Nelson since the moment he arrived,” she said. “Everyone was eager to meet him and help in any way they could. I thank Coach Henchen a lot for his role and support.”

As for Witt’s academic journey, the aspiring nurse has developed a passion for helping others as she has reaped the benefits from health care professionals throughout her own journey.

“I want to give back and help make an impact on someone else's life. I think I will be successful in this field as I have been on the patient side,” said Witt.