Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=100345
Story Retrieval Date: 5/18/2013 4:38:17 PM CST
Aubrey Woolford, like most 11-year-old girls, appears to be carefree. She has an easy smile, talks with an excited ring, and seems to bounce energetically from place to place.
However, Aubrey does have a lot to care about: She must constantly calculate what she eats and balance how much energy she spends.
Aubrey, of Wilmette, is one of thousands of children with juvenile diabetes, also known as type 1 diabetes. According to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation as many as 3 million Americans have type 1 diabetes.
Even while walking in the Oct. 5 Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation's 30th Annual Ron Santo Walk to Cure Diabetes, she was calculating how much energy she would spend and the amount of sugar half a granola bar would add to her body. She and her friends have made a game of seeing who can keep their blood sugar closest to 100.
A person with type 1 diabetes has trouble regulating blood sugar levels because the immune system attacks cells in the pancreas that create insulin. Insulin is an important hormone that helps the body move glucose (sugar) throughout the body to be used as energy. A person with diabetes stops producing insulin and the glucose stays in their blood.
There are two major types of diabetes.
Type 1 is often diagnosed during childhood and is an autoimmune disease, meaning that the body is fighting against itself. This type of diabetes is not related to obesity or caused by consuming too much sugar.
Type 2 diabetes often occurs during adulthood and is a metabolic disorder, meaning an abnormal chemical reaction occurs when the body tries to digest food. A person with type 2 still produces insulin, but the body does not use it properly. An increase in obesity has led to an “epidemic” in type 2 diabetes, which is now occurring more commonly in children.
Advances in technology are making it easier for diabetics to manage their disease and lower the risk of complications. However, there is still no cure and the disease affects every organ system and increases the risk for kidney failure, stroke, blindness, nerve damage and a shorter life.
“The insulin that they take four, five, or six times a day is not a cure, it’s just life support for them,” said Karen Case, the board president of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation in Illinois.
In January 2007 a fatigued Aubrey snuggled into bed with her mother, Jennifer Woolford. That’s when Woolford noticed just how skinny Aubrey’s wrists were. And that wasn’t all: her skin was a funny color; she was drinking tons of water; she was tired; and constantly using the bathroom. Woolford searched online and she began to suspect that her daughter might have diabetes. People told her she was overreacting, but she scheduled a doctor’s appointment for Aubrey one day after school.
The pediatrician confirmed Woolford’s fears. Aubrey’s blood sugar was 500, which is nearly five times higher than it should be. A normal blood sugar is in the low to mid hundreds.
Immediately following Aubrey’s doctor visit she was taken to the hospital where she spent three days, which is typical for anyone diagnosed with diabetes. During this time the hospital not only treats the disease, but also educates the patient in dealing with and maintaining diabetes.
Since then Aubrey has not surpassed 500 as her sugar level reading, but she monitors herself carefully by taking four shots of insulin daily. “We’re teaching her to be good about it, because if you’re good about it, you won’t have any complications,” said Woolford.
Many of us cringe at the thought of sticking a needle into ourselves multiple times a day, but that’s not the hardest part for Aubrey. She started giving herself shots within the first month of having diabetes after practicing on a doll in the doctor’s office.
“It didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would,” said Aubrey nonchalantly about pricking her finger and giving herself insulin shots. She occasionally gets minor bruising from the constant needles, but that doesn’t seem to bother her either. The hardest part for Aubrey is feeling different and dealing with her peers and friends. She hates being late for school lunch because her first stop is the school nurse’s office for her shot.
The combination of school and diabetes is difficult for many students. Some are prevented from participating in school activities and not allowed to discretely do a finger prick test during class. Forcing students to go to the nurse’s station not only draws unwanted attention, but also takes away from class time, especially if the student needs to check multiple times a day.
Luckily, Aubrey attends sixth grade at Wilmette Highcrest Middle School, which works with all three diabetic students and parents to develop an individual plan. Pam Strunk, the school nurse, encourages the students to test their blood in class so they don’t lose class time. However, the students do need to be in the nurse’s office to administer the insulin shot.
Last year Strunk and Aubrey created a broadcast that was presented in homerooms in order to combat the questions and misconceptions regarding diabetes.
“We want students to know that not everyone is like you,” said Strunk. “There is diversity in culture, there is diversity in economics and academics, but there is also diversity in health issues. We want students to be armed with knowledge.”
“It was hard in fifth grade, but it’s easier now since everyone knows what it is,” said Aubrey, who originally felt uncomfortable with all the questions her friends and peers had for her. After the broadcast, all the questions seemed to vanish and other students seemed more comfortable.
“I want her to feel comfortable in every situation.” said Woolford who encourages Aubrey to not hide her disease from the world, and reminds her that she can do anything.