Navigating Type 1 Diabetes and Learning Along the Way
Monica Westley, PhD
Here is my story about our daughter Allison, and the incredible lessons she has taught us. We have always been a family of explorers and adventurers, readers of books and lovers of nature. We encouraged our kids to learn as much about the world as they could. Still, until four years ago, we like so many others, knew very little about type 1 diabetes.
Allison had been losing weight (but growing taller) thirsty (but it was hot here in SoCal) and then began to have flu symptoms. On the second day of the “flu” (DKA) we brought her to her pediatrician. I asked “Could this be high blood sugar”? The pediatrician said, “Oh its very unlikely but why don’t you go to the ER, we don’t have a way to measure that here!”
At the ER, our daughter was lying down, super sick, yet still we had to ask that she be seen several times. We waited for over 3 hours, along with those who were waiting to be seen for a common cold. Finally, in the back, the young doctor sampled her blood with the glucometer and turned to me. “Your daughter has type 1 diabetes. It’s a life long condition for which there is no cure. You will be taken by ambulance to the Children’s hospital where you will learn how to live with this.” And so began our journey.
Initially, its all a blur. You’re thinking,” Ok I think we can fix this if….”. Then you realize there is no way out of this condition, and you must move forward as a family. You start to learn all you possibly can about it and how to optimize blood sugars. For the first 2 years we checked her every night at 2am, and more if her blood sugar didn’t settle down.
Then came the advent of Nightscout, which was a group of amazing parents who hacked into the existing technology to allow the blood sugars to be visualized by parents. Quickly, Medtronic and Dexcom responded with their own “version” of Nightscout. The ability to see Allison’s blood sugars on our phones by our bedside and to be alarmed if she came out of range was invaluable. Our rattled nerves could settle a bit. Now she could go overnight with friends, and that was a freedom gained!
Then we learned about TYPEONE Grit, a low carb, high protein way of eating (WOE) endorsed by Dr. Richard Bernstein, and followed by many. Google him, he’s amazing. This WOE was not recommended by our pediatric endo or the CDE in the hospital, but it was an amazing and invaluable resource and has helped keep her blood sugars much more stable. Another win!
Finally, after she was experiencing many undiagnosable “Highs” I began to search for an answer. Allison uses the Medtronic pump, and I asked our endo to change her from the plastic cannula in the MIO quickset to the SureT needle. Their feeling was that she didn’t really need it. However, when I pressed they changed it. Almost immediately, she was in better control. Yet another win!
From all these experiences we learned, when your child has Type 1 diabetes, you MUST continually be your child’s advocate, you must be proactive, you must keep searching for new advances and ways of doing things. At times you will be exhausted, sad, maybe on your knees, but don’t lose faith! This disease will unexpectedly teach you many things.
What else did we learn? We learned that Allison has an amazing spirit! At times, diabetes dampened her spirit, but it’s ember has never gone out. Her capacity for resilience, tenacity and resourcefulness has grown stronger with every year.
What has she done since her diagnosis? Allison has been class president, homecoming queen, a runway model for JDRF, raised over $20,000 for JDRF. She has worked in a type 1 diabetes research lab at Harvard, started a Hands on Science program at a local underprivileged school and kept it going every week for 3 years, received the Presidential Service Award, National Honor Society recommended, straight As, Cum Laude Society, Peer Mentor leader, started her company Mermaid Medicine, acted in the school musical, created her column “In Someone Else’s Shoes”.
She was named “19 under 19 to watch” and completed 4 years of high school varsity sports. She currently runs the fastest mile on the track team. Allison has also recently been accepted to USC (Merit Scholar) and to Harvard. Right now she is preparing to go on a 2 week wilderness adventure off the grid in the Sierras where she will be the only person with T1D.
Pretty cool, right?
People say, “She makes it look so easy”. And she does. I do want to tell those on “the outside of diabetes” just don’t forget that behind it 24/7/365 she is walking the tightrope of blood sugars. It requires strength and grit. She is strong and most importantly, she is kind. Because of all she deals with in her own diabetes realm, her compassion muscle is very strong. She even gives those like our current US Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who think there’s one type of diabetes, and judge those who have it, compassion.
Heres what I would share to the “newbie parents”. Be your child’s advocate. Trust your gut, you are on the front lines of this with your child. Be proactive. Never stop learning about the disease and new technology, clinical trials, and ways of eating (WOE). Find community. I formed a group called “The Sugar Mamas” we meet for lunch and keep each other sane. Keep an eye on the online community of diabetes: GLU, CGM in the Cloud, CDN and especially TYPEONEGRIT are all important networks with helpful people, many who have great ideas and inspiration. Most are going through what you are going through. Strength in numbers!
Finally, keep your dreams for your child’s success alive. Encourage them to reach. Encourage yourself to stay strong. Play the song “You’re an Overcomer” really, really loud ! Don’t forget to have fun. If one day is terrible, try again the next day. Look for a sliver of humor in the crazy diabetes things that happen. And don’t forget to pray for the day when we all wake up to the front page headline ” A Cure for Type 1 diabetes has been found”.