By Keith Pannell
In the general scheme of things, having your child diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes isn’t as bad as having your child diagnosed with cancer or your child being involved in any kind of accident.
But, at the end of the first day, it sinks in that this can’t be healed, it can’t be cut away and, while there may be no physical scars, diabetes will be there forever.
I was diagnosed in April 1986, when I was 15 years-old. My mom was gobsmacked. I was a healthy, if skinny, teenager. I played sports, I was active around the neighborhood and, even though I was a picky eater, I ate what she put in front me.
I had been having a lot of symptoms and my mom made an appointment, which included full-blown bloodwork.
Soon afterwards, a pediatrician came out to the waiting room and asked in a cheery voice, “Oh, are you my new diabetic?”
Forty-five minutes after walking into the hospital, I had an IV in an arm and was being wheeled into the Intensive Care Unit. It turns out my blood sugar was 699. For comparison, a normal blood sugar, check with a finger prick and a drop of blood, is 80-120. The doctor said another week and I would’ve been in a coma.
Like a freight train.
Mom pulled the doc aside and I heard her ask, “We’re not talking full blown diabetes are we?” The doctor told her it absolutely was Type 1 Diabetes.
She was crushed. I felt guilty. I had nothing to do with it, but I felt like the engineer on that train that ran her over.
“It’s a day I will never forget,” she said. “You feel helpless and you ask why and then you get back into parent mode and figure out what you need to do.”
The first thing she had to do was educate herself on diabetes. See, everyone knows about diabetes, but unless you have it, or care for a child with it, you don’t truly know diabetes. The learning curve is very, very steep and a life depends on how fast the parents and the patient absorb that knowledge.
“I think I over fed you the first couple of days because they told me I needed to feed you carbs so the insulin had something to break down,” my mom said. “I felt helpless. There was no Google then.”
Two things are most important; learning to inject the insulin (or hook up the pump) and learning to do the finger sticks. Luckily, at 15, I was able to do those things myself.
The 11 year-old daughter of a former co-worker of mine was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes in September 2017. She said the diagnosis was a relief because the symptoms had been showing up for about five weeks.
“Honestly, my first thought about diagnosis was relief and thankfulness,” she said. “When the diagnosis came in, I was relieved to know what was happening to my child and I was very thankful that it was a condition that could be controlled. Between illness onset and diagnosis, the fear of what could be wrong with my child ran the gamut from the minor to the life threatening.”
A diabetic doesn’t do anything without considering their diabetes. Parents of diabetics don’t let their child do anything without considering their diabetes. Sports, vacations, sleepovers, meals out, meals in, and even the simple act of going to school.
My friend with the young daughter told me the simple act of an afterschool snack can cause a battle.
“We are almost two months after diagnosis and the adjustment is still ongoing for both my diabetic child and the rest of the family. One of the biggest adjustments has been snacks and food choices. My little diabetic is a carb lover and has a major sweet tooth and can be a very picky eater. We've had numerous meltdowns because she hates the fact that part of her snack choice is dictated by her willingness to have an insulin injection,” she said.
Even though a parent can be overwhelmingly supportive and helpful to their diabetic child, it comes as somewhat of a shock to learn their child becomes depressed and feels lonely.
“We have no one in the family, or that we're friends with locally, who are diabetic, so she has expressed feelings of loneliness and anger because she was feeling like the only person in the world dealing with diabetes,” she said. “One of the things that helped is a mandatory diabetes education program. They set up a group text for the children. That way she is able to text with kids who are going through what she is going through.”
I’ve had diabetes for 31 years. That’s more than 23,000 injections and countless finger sticks and drops of blood. I’ve heard, “a cure is just around the corner” for three decades.
Looking forward to a future of doctors, syringes, the occasional hospital stay and nagging friends, family, co-workers, classmates and anyone else who has a connection to somebody with diabetes (“You can’t eat that!”) can be daunting for a child and a parent. But the best thing you can do as a parent is to educate yourself and your child and stay positive, which is what my friend is doing.
“As for the future, I honestly don't see this diagnosis as having a negative impact or in any way defining her future. She could be the second or third female president, and a diagnosis of diabetes won't hold her back from that, if it is truly where she is meant to be.”
Keith Pannell is a media relations specialist for Fort Sill Army post in SW Oklahoma. Prior to that he was a reporter in TV, radio and print for 15 years. He has been a Type 1 diabetic since April 1986.