Vicki Santo had often wondered what she could do to honor her late husband, and just as often she struggled to find the perfect theme that would define his spirit.
It's not as though there weren't a lot of opportunities. It's that she wanted it to be both impacting and different.
And then in the most circuitous of ways -- could there be any other involving Ron Santo? -- she fell, heartbroken, into something special.
By happenstance, she discovered that dogs know when a diabetic's blood sugar levels are high or low, and can be trained to alert the diabetic.
Even better, dogs are 20 minutes ahead of a glucometer.
"Ron never knew about this," Vicki says now. "Of course, we would have trained a dog for him if we had known.
"We need to get this out there because Ron knew more than just about anyone about diabetes, and he didn't know about this."
So Vicki Santo wants to spread the word and she wants diabetics to know there is a wonderful gift available to them. But first, she must tell you how she stumbled into this discovery.
"We had a dog named Joker, and Joker, let's just say, didn't really love being around Ron,'' Vicki said, laughing. "Joker was a very sensitive dog, and Ron was a little loud for the dog.
"I mean, I would sneeze and the dog would leave the room, so imagine Ron in the room. The dog didn't like stress. Ron would scream at the TV and the dog would run out and Ron would say, 'Why doesn't that dog like me?'
"Ron loved dogs and he wanted Joker to like him, so he would come home late after a game and try to win points with the dog. He would feed Joker cold cuts and turkey and I'd tell him not to, but he was trying to get the dog to like him.
"The next day he'd yell at the TV, the dog would run out of the room and he'd yell, 'I feed him and he still hates me.'
"So Joker never wanted to be around Ron, but one day Joker came to find me and he was puffing and panting and obviously stressed. I couldn't figure it out. He wouldn't stop until I went with him. He watched me to make sure I followed him to the bedroom.
"Well, Ron was in the bedroom and was out of it and in big trouble. He didn't have his legs on and his blood sugar was very, very low and he couldn't have saved himself at that point. But Joker found me and we took care of Ron.
"I never made the connection, but it happened with little things, like Ron was mad because he left something in the living room or dropped something and couldn't get out of bed to get it.
"Now that I look back on it, even when it was a small thing, Joker would find me to help Ron."
When they returned to Arizona last fall, Ron was sick again and the family was awaiting test results to see if bladder cancer had returned.
Once again, Joker was ahead of everyone else.
"The dog would never sit in a room with Ron, and now Joker would not leave his side," Vicki remembers. "If I was in the room, Joker would always come sit with me, but not now.
"We were waiting for the diagnosis and Joker put his foot up on Ron's knee. Ron looked at me and said, 'He knows, Vick.'
"And he did. Joker knew."
By the time Vicki returned to Arizona from the funeral in Chicago, Joker was sick.
He went from looking fine while Ron was alive to, a week later, looking quite ill.
The vet confirmed Joker was dying and had only days to live. His kidneys were filled with cancer, just after Ron's kidneys had failed because of chemo, leading to heart failure.
"I was sitting on the floor with Joker, crying," Vicki recalls. "I put my hands over my eyes and I said, 'Joker, you did your job. You helped Ron. You helped me.' And then we had to put him down. I was devastated."
With tears streaming down her face, Vicki drove straight from the vet to an animal shelter and adopted a dog.
"More like," Vicki said, "the dog found me and adopted me."
As she had with Joker, she wanted the new pup to be trained as a service dog with a public access certificate.
"As I took my new dog to get trained, I bumped into a young man at the store who asked if I was training the dog to diagnose a diabetic," Vicki said. "You should have seen the look on my face. I said, 'What do you mean?'
"He explained that if your blood sugar is low, he'll give you one high-five. If you're high, he'll give you two. Or they can be trained to bark or something else.
"I just couldn't believe we didn't know about this. Someone had to hit me over the head for me to see it, and it happened because of this kid in the store. That's when I realized how much Joker really knew."
Vicki started researching the program and found out that it works. According to the National Detection Dog Training Center, dogs have 220 million olfactory receptors to gather a scent, while humans have only 5 million.
"So when a diabetic's sugar starts dropping, there's a chemical reaction and that's what the dog smells," Vicki explained.
Alert Service Dogs LLC, based near Indianapolis, is one place to start, and there are others scattered across the country (search: alert diabetes dogs), as well as a resource page on the JDRF website.
This fall, the Alert Service Dogs and their trainers will be at the 2011 Ron Santo Walk to Cure Diabetes on Oct. 2 (www.walk.jdrf.org) at four different sites (Schaumburg, Libertyville, Lisle and Chicago) so that anyone can watch them work.
"I was at the walk in Arizona, and in just a few minutes they alerted four walkers they were low," Vicki said. "All were low and didn't know.
"One guy said, 'I'm fine,' and drove home and dropped so low that he nearly got in an accident. He called and said, 'I can't believe it. I should have tested when they asked me.'
"But the dogs know it before the glucometer knows it."
It takes about a year to train a dog for a specific individual and can cost several thousand dollars.
"We want people to know that dogs are working with trainers all around the country," Vicki Santo said. "But if you ask 100 diabetics, 99 will say they never knew about this.
"I feel an obligation to do this for Ron, to spread the word to as many people as possible because this is what Ron would have wanted.
"Had I ever known about this, I would have done it for him in a heartbeat.
"So the more we do to spread the word, the more we help diabetics. It's going to be my way to give something back to the diabetic community in Ron's memory."