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Diabetes: Erika's Story

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD

"You have juvenile diabetes." Not something you hear every day, huh? But those were the words that changed my life forever. On August 31, 2000, I was lying in a hospital bed and the doctors were explaining that my pancreas had stopped functioning and I was no longer producing insulin. I was zoned out. Diabetes? How is that possible? Why me?

Maybe I should explain how I got there.

From Beach Chair to Hospital Bed

During the summer of 2000 I was in Puerto Rico at a family reunion. We were relaxing by the beach when suddenly I had to go to the bathroom. Five minutes later I had to go again. I thought it was all the water I was drinking, so I cut back. Still, the frequent trips to the bathroom continued. When I had two "accidents," I realized that something was wrong. I mean, at age 12 these things don't happen.

We called the doctor's office and they said it was probably just a urinary tract infection. I was given some antibiotics. Unfortunately, the medication had no effect. We cut our trip short and returned home. On the flight back, we had to ask for a seat close to the bathroom because my trips were increasing in frequency.

As soon as our plane landed, we headed to my physician's office. They took a urine sample, and for once I had no trouble giving one. When they tested it, they found traces of sugar in it. The physician then told me she wanted to check my blood sugar. I was scared! My grandparents have diabetes, so I knew that meant a needle. The machine read "466." My doctor stepped out of the room and, when she returned, she told me I had to go to the hospital. They were waiting for me there. She pulled my mom aside. I realized that things were not going well.

That's how I ended up with an IV in my arm, wearing one of those revealing robes; pulled from paradise into a world of white with beeping noises and bad food. During my time in the hospital, my family and I were taught about diabetes and how to manage it. I had to learn what to eat and how to give myself shots. I even had to improve my math skills in order to count carbohydrates.

I was overwhelmed! All I could think was, "I'm only 12 years old! How could this happen?" The fact that I was starting a new school that year didn't help. I didn't know how people would react or what they would say. What if they rejected me because of it? Would they make fun of me? Would I make friends? What if my blood sugar acted up and I made a fool of myself in class?

Living With Diabetes — and Little Brothers

At first I was really quiet about having diabetes. I refused to tell anyone in school. Then, when my friends began asking me why I had to go to the nurse's office all the time, I decided to tell them. It turned out to be a good choice. Everyone was interested. They asked some funny questions like "Is it contagious?" (it's not) and "So, wait, you can never have sugar?" (I can). But I enjoyed explaining. When I had low blood sugar at school, my friends noticed it immediately and were able to help me.

What is a day with diabetes like? I wake up and check my blood sugar using a finger-prick test. At breakfast I count carbohydrates and do some math in order to inject the proper dosage of insulin. At lunch, dinner, and before bed it's the same routine. If I have any symptoms of high or low blood sugar, then I have to prick my finger once again.

It's not a good idea for me to skip meals. And I have to do extra checks on my blood sugar levels when I'm doing any kind of intense physical activity. Diabetes can also make someone moody. I will be happy and bouncing off the walls one second, and the next, I am yelling at my brothers.

I must confess that having diabetes has not been a walk in the park. There have been times when I want to rip my hair out! For example, I wasn't even able to go to a sleepover until the tenth grade! My parents were kind of scared by it all.

I love sports. I can still play — I've played basketball, volleyball, and soccer — but I have to watch out for my blood sugar levels. During volleyball season, I tested my blood sugar more often. My blood sugar levels can affect my performance, so I wanted to make sure they were where they should be. Now I am getting in shape for soccer. All the running lowers my blood sugars, but the adrenaline rush can make them rise, causing my blood sugars to go up and down like a roller-coaster sometimes.

And I have the biggest sweet tooth imaginable. I mean I love candy (especially white chocolate) and ice cream. Before I was diagnosed with diabetes, I would eat it all the time. Afterward, well, let's just say I felt like a chronic smoker who had to stop smoking cold turkey. It was horrible. I craved it all the time! My two little brothers didn't help. They would sit there and eat any possible trace of sugar in the house right in front of me. Don't get me wrong, I am allowed to have sugar, as long as I don't go overboard. But let's be honest, once you have a slice, you want the whole cake.

Things That Changed My Life

My teenage years have been OK so far. I have learned how to handle my diabetes a lot better. In 2001, I got my insulin pump. That has completely changed my life, and things are a lot easier. I don't have to take a shot every time I eat, just one shot every 2 days. The pump takes a lot of the work off my hands. I still have to do calculations based on what I eat, but at least I don't have to give myself four shots a day. I only need to use a needle to insert a tiny plastic tube under my skin every 2 days. The pump is barely noticeable, too. Many people confuse it for a cell phone because of its size. It also comes with a lot of accessories, and as a girl, I love that!

I have also learned a lot more about diabetes and how to handle it. I have attended diabetes camps and have seen children much younger than I am with the same disease. Meeting them and their families has given me a more positive perspective on my diabetes. I have learned to whine less. If children 2 years of age can handle it, why can't I?

I have also become involved with the American Diabetes Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. I want to help others with diabetes. I figure, "Hey, if I have to live with it, why not help others walking the same path?" If you help one person, you help the world.

Dating and Family

One of the major areas in teenage life is dating, the most complicated area in life, right? Let's throw diabetes into the mix. Get the picture? In July 2002, I began a relationship. The guy was a close friend. Actually, he was also my next-door neighbor. (OK, girls, ready: "awwww!")

But on a more serious note, it was extremely difficult. He was the one person I was afraid to tell about my diabetes. See, I always had a crush on the guy. I thought that if I told him, it would make me less appealing. It wasn't until a month before we started dating that I told him about my diabetes. I was surprised when he told me that his grandmother had it. He was willing to learn all about it! My mom invited him over and taught him all the signs of high and low blood sugar, how to work my insulin pump, and how to check my blood sugar.

Every time we went out, he would make sure I checked my blood sugar and followed my meal plan — which was really bad when I wanted to cheat! He even got me sugar-free white chocolate for Valentine's Day. He would attend and help with all the diabetes walks and fundraisers. It was great. I really appreciate him for that. It also helped that I had someone to talk to when I was stressed about my diabetes. It helps to talk to someone other than your family members. Sometimes it's even easier.

But I have to give credit where it's due. My family has been so supportive of me. My parents have made so many sacrifices in order to provide all of my medical supplies, especially my mom. She is my angel. She will go out of her way to make sure I have everything I might possibly need, even if it's something as small as alcohol swabs. My brothers are incredible as well. My youngest brother, Gabriel, is incredibly mature. At night when I fall asleep studying, he comes into my room and checks my blood sugar for me. I could not ask for a better support system.

Learning for Life

Diabetes has its ups and downs. Some days I think it's too much to handle, others I forget I even have it. I personally think diabetes has helped me grow as a person. I have become more responsible and mature.

Because of my experience, I have decided to become a pediatric endocrinologist. This way I can help children with the same problems, and they can't tell me, "You don't know what I'm going through!" Diabetes has become a friend. All I have to do is view it as a part of me, not some disease. Yes, the road is hard, but nothing comes easy. You have to work for what you want.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: July 2012