Beep-beep-beep. Wake up; the glucose meter is vibrating. Glance at the clock; it’s 3 a.m. Finger stick and squeeze a drop of blood. Glucose: 228. Too high; inject 1 unit insulin to correct. Stay up 30 minutes. Repeat finger stick.
Imagine being a teenager having to live with a monitor perpetually strapped to your body and a fine tube connected to a needle inserted into your abdomen. Prior to ingesting any morsel of food, every macronutrient gram must be entered into the device. You input how much insulin to “bolus” (release) into your blood stream to compensate for whatever you ingested— because your body, which is normally supposed to that on it’s own, doesn’t. You memorize the precise amount of carbohydrates in all common foods and store that information in your brain like a computer.
This is just a glimpse of what it is like living with Type 1 diabetes, a disease with a peak age at diagnosis of 14.
Most people know about “diabetes,” but they probably assume Type 1 is the same as its common counterpart, Type 2. However, the two forms are completely different. Type 2 diabetics are usually older overweight people who become resistant to insulin – the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. Type 1 diabetics, on the other hand, are most often pre-teens or teens who stop producing insulin altogether due to the destruction of insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. The lack of insulin leads to an excessive accumulation of glucose in the blood. In a non-diabetic’s body, the pancreas releases insulin after every meal to help move glucose out of the bloodstream and into the tissues where it is needed. In diabetics, this does not occur, and glucose remains in the blood stream where it can cause tremendous health problems, even coma or death.
Shots of insulin are necessary for those living with type 1 diabetes because it cannot be treated by diet, exercise or other oral diabetes medicines alone. Nevertheless, dietary management is still important. That’s where keeping track of the carbohydrate content of food and careful monitoring of blood glucose levels using glucose meters come into play. Besides insulin, exercise, and food intake, there are many more factors impacting blood sugar levels that are completely outside a diabetic’s control, which is extremely frustrating. For example, catching a cold, changing weather conditions or having stress can cause sugar levels to rise. Living with diabetes takes an incredible emotional toll on the individual and the family, as often a parent needs to stay up at night for the blood sugar monitoring from childhood through the teenage years until they can manage on their own. While we can simply eat a meal and move on with our day, trusting that our pancreas will release the appropriate amount of insulin to keep our blood sugar stable, those with type 1 diabetes have to perform this ordinarily automatic bodily function manually. It’s like having to tell your heart to beat or stomach to digest!
The least the non-diabetic community can do is to learn about the disease, and understand the difference between type 1 and type 2. Almost ten percent of the US population has diabetes and one tenth of these have type 1, which typically presents itself in the adolescent years. Show interest in educating yourself about the struggles type 1 diabetics face, as we all have teenage friends or acquaintances who may have just learned they have this illness and could use the support.