I'm a Teen With Type 1 Diabetes—It Impacts My Life More Than You Know

In this 'Teen Talk' column, a teen shares what life with Type 1 diabetes is like and how parents can be supportive if their child has the chronic autoimmune condition.

Type 1 Diabetes teen talk
Photo: Zoe Hansen

Just imagine: Your head is pounding, your heart is racing, your hands are trembling, and you can't control it. You're sitting alone on a bench, feeling terrible as your friends scurry along, playing and chasing one another. Meanwhile, you're here, experiencing hypoglycemia.

It isn't fun.

If you don't know me and saw me goofing around with some of my friends, you'd think I'm just like all the other kids, and you'd be right. I am like other kids. There's only one key difference—I have Type 1 diabetes.

My Type 1 Diabetes Diagnosis

I had just turned 6 when I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes (T1D for short). I was frequently drinking, sweating, and using the bathroom 12-13 times a day. At the time, I was confused. I didn't understand what was wrong with me, or how this would affect me in the future. All I was told, was that things were going to change.

Turns out I'm one of roughly 1.9 million Americans who live with T1D. It is an autoimmune disease where the pancreas can no longer develop insulin. Insulin helps break down the sugar in your blood and is essential for giving you energy. If my blood sugar levels are high and left untreated, I am at risk of falling into a diabetic coma. If my sugar levels are low enough, I may faint or experience a seizure.

This disease is chronic and cannot be cured. For the rest of my life, I need to monitor my blood sugar levels and inject myself with insulin to live, and this was my new reality at age 6.

How a Slice of Pizza Can Change My Whole Day

These days, I'm entering a new era of independence. I've been taking trips to the mall, going to parties, and grabbing a slice of pizza with friends. While most kids my age are simply leaving the house, I'm preparing an entire medical kit. I'm dragging along juices in case my blood sugar drops, extra syringes, alcohol pads, and other gear. While my friends are eating three or four slices of pizza, I'm struggling to decide on whether I should be having a single slice. Foods like pizza are slow to digest but high in carbohydrates, which presents a challenge.

Unlike most of my friends, I must plan out all my meal choices. It's like a constant game of chess. Should I skip the pizza and struggle with my sugar levels for the rest of the day? Or just go for it and deal with it later? It's never an easy choice.

Treating My Type 1 Diabetes

Treating Type 1 diabetes requires a lot of commitment and effort. I constantly monitor my blood sugar, so it doesn't go too high (dangerous) or too low (also dangerous). Often, symptoms like sweating, dizziness, and shakiness let me know when my glucose levels have changed. Unfortunately, I don't always notice these changes, so I must check my blood sugar levels manually with a finger prick. Several calculations need to occur to determine my insulin dose, including the need to count every carbohydrate I take into my body. In the case of that delicious pizza, I was referring to, my insulin dose will be much higher.

A doctor weighs in:

"In this type of diabetes, the pancreas makes little to no insulin. Without insulin our bodies cannot get glucose to the tissues and muscles of our body," explains Rashmi Jain, M.D., a concierge pediatrician in Irvine, California, and founder of BabiesMD. "If we aren't able to access glucose, our body will not have the energy it needs to function properly."

Typically, children will be admitted to the hospital after their Type 1 diabetes diagnosis for observation and to figure out the best treatment regimen, says Dr. Jain. They will also be introduced to a pediatric endocrinologist, a doctor specializing in the care of diabetic children.

Along with multiple finger pokes daily to check blood sugars, children will also receive injections of insulin a few times a day. "Once the illness is well-controlled, some children may be candidates for an insulin pump or a continuous glucose monitor. These are devices that remain attached to the body through the skin to provide more finite control of blood sugar variations. If a child graduates to these devices, then they don't need the multiple finger pokes or insulin injections throughout the day," adds Dr. Jain.

How Parents Can Help Their Kid With T1D

When I talk about T1D with others, most point out how hard it must be to deal with so many needles. At first, that was my focus and fear, but nowadays, needles are no big deal. According to a calculator that I found on JDRF, an organization that funds Type 1 diabetes research, I've lived with diabetes for almost 2,400 days and have likely pricked my finger over 19,000 times since my diagnosis. The calculator also estimates that I've spent over 3,400 hours recovering from low blood sugars. Those are awfully big numbers for a kid my age and frankly, I'm exhausted.

I wish people knew that I can't always control what's going on with my body. Sometimes, I'm overly excited and uncharacteristically bouncing off the walls. Sometimes I lose concentration and can't remember things I learned just one moment ago. Sometimes, I will quietly "sit out"—even if it's the most epic game of flag football or laser tag because my glucose levels are off. A little patience and understanding go a long way for teens like me.

A doctor weighs in:

Family support is very important for the management of the lifelong condition. "When one member is dealing with a disease like diabetes, if the whole family can change their habits, it is not only supportive but much easier for the child to follow the rules," says Dr. Jain. "When a diabetic child can't have something that his or her siblings have, it is very discouraging. Support in the form of uniform food choices in the household is one of the best forms of motivation for the child. It also keeps the child from accidentally reaching for the wrong snack."

Parents should also try not to get anxious or stressed around checking blood sugars or make the act of getting insulin seem like a chore. Instead, it should simply become part of the family's routine. Dr. Jain does see kids and teens who start skipping blood sugar checks or insulin injections because they say they don't want to feel different or alienated from their peers. "During this juncture, acknowledging their feelings, being more of a friend than the nagging parent goes a long way in helping them return to caring for their own health and well-being," says Dr. Jain.

Looking To My Future

Today, I continue to overcome obstacles and manage stressful situations. My doctors and nurses are always encouraging me to try new things that overwhelm me both physically and emotionally, but I know I must do what's best for my long-term health. Many new devices and treatments are available or in development but there is no perfect solution that doesn't require multiple needles attaching these devices to my body. That said, I am determined to adjust and adapt as new challenges and treatments become available. I've managed to survive more than six years with T1D, and I will keep fighting.

Read more 'Teen Talk' columns here.

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