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Off-the-clock: A life-changing friendship

Denver Water’s hydropower program manager helps his daughter overcome challenges with epilepsy.

During 2020, it became clear to many people just how incredibly important pets are in their lives, and specifically (apologies to cat lovers), their dogs.

John Blackwell, a hydropower program manager and section manager for Denver Water’s collection system, will say that their family dog, Milo, isn’t just important, he’s a lifesaver. 

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John Blackwell and dog Milo
John Blackwell and Milo, the goldendoodle he is training to be a service dog for his daughter, Amelia, who has epilepsy. Photo credit: John Blackwell.

Blackwell’s oldest daughter, Amelia, has epilepsy.

Amelia was diagnosed in 2011 when she was 10 years old. She has hundreds of seizures daily, most of them undetectable. However, at least once a day, Amelia will have a debilitating and potentially dangerous seizure.

“Amelia has complex partial seizures, which look different each time based on which area of her brain is being overstimulated,” Blackwell said. “She might suddenly stare off into space, rock back and forth, clap her hands, or have a very emotional response like crying — all very different responses.”


Read more stories about Denver Water employees, the jobs they do and their interests off the clock. 


For Amelia, these seizures mean she cannot drive or work full time. Blackwell said his daughter spent her formative years in hospitals undergoing tests and treatments.

“One of the unintended consequences was the significant loss of her teenage years,” Blackwell said. “While other kids developed social and decision-making skills, Amelia didn’t have that opportunity.”

Enter, Milo, a 1 ½-year-old goldendoodle, whom Blackwell is training as a service dog to detect Amelia’s seizures before they happen.

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Amelia Blackwell and Milo
Having Milo as her service dog and constant companion has given Amelia Blackwell much more freedom and opportunities to experience things, like visiting the holiday display at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Photo credit: John Blackwell.

While Blackwell and his wife, Rachel, have pursued many different treatment options for Amelia over the past decade, Milo is probably the one who has made the biggest difference — in all their lives.

“Milo loves to cuddle with us, and we’ve all built a great emotional connection with him,” Blackwell said. “He is a great dog for what he does. He knows how important he is, and we know it too.”

Now Amelia, 20, is building her confidence interacting with people and learning to read social cues, with support provided by Milo and her family. She graduated from high school, studies history at Community College of Denver and is a volunteer at Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Amelia dreams of one day becoming a museum curator.

While Milo has been with their family only since August 2019, Blackwell said he was a fast learner.

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Milo
Blackwell said that Milo is one of the smartest dogs he’s ever worked with and is such an important part of their family — and he’s pretty darn cute. Photo credit: John Blackwell.

“Milo is one of the smartest dogs I’ve seen,” Blackwell said. “After several months of training, he started barking and alerting us to Amelia’s seizures when he was six months old. Even though he’s still a puppy, he’s extremely accurate and reliable.”

Currently, the Blackwell family is trying to solve a problem that’s hounded them for some time — if Amelia and Milo were away from home and she needed help, how would someone be able to quickly contact them? Recently, the answer came to Blackwell while he was at work.

“I was working with a colleague on using QR codes for equipment records or manuals so people could easily find data they need. And it suddenly hit me. I could do this for Amelia and Milo,” Blackwell said.

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Milo's harness QR code
To get help in a medical emergency, Blackwell worked to develop a safety QR code that Milo wears on his patch, which provides a direct link to health information and alerts Blackwell that his daughter needs assistance. Photo credit: John Blackwell.

By creating a QR code and attaching it to a tag on Milo’s service vest, a first responder or bystander could scan the code and receive instructions about what to do next if Amelia needs help. When the code gets scanned, Blackwell receives an immediate notification.

“It’s a complete game-changer, not only for her, but for anyone dealing with epilepsy,” Blackwell said. “It will definitely help Amelia on her path to independent living, and I really want this to help people with epilepsy navigate the world.”

Amelia and Milo have formed a tight bond, allowing Amelia to develop goals and plans for working with her dog.

“It became her purpose and her focus, instead of living between her seizures,” Blackwell said. “They have a very strong connection with each other.”