December 5th, 2008
12:02 PM ET

Kids struggle with diabetes

Volunteering at Tides

Volunteering at Tides

By Alani Gregory
CNN Medical Intern

Just imagine going to a restaurant and ordering a plate of food. Before you even take a bite, you must estimate the serving size of each food on the plate. Then, you must correctly estimate the amount of carbohydrates in that food, add it all up, and then give yourself insulin. Now imagine doing this every time you eat! That’s the harsh reality of living with diabetes.

When I entered my freshman year of college, like every overachieving-“Grey’s Anatomy”-watching- pre-med student, I began my quest to rid the world of all its health maladies. I was immediately drawn to an organization called T1DES (Type 1 Diabetes Education and Support), a student-run organization that provides access to diabetes education and support for children in inner-city New York. One application, a background check and an interview later and I was in. My first day, I sat in disbelief during training, when the facts and figures were spelled out. According to the CDC, 23.6 million children and adults in the United States suffer from type1 or type 2 diabetes. Every year, 15,000 children learn they have type 1 diabetes. That’s 40 children each day, according to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International.

Much of the focus on diabetes has been on reducing type 2 diabetes – the form of the disease in which the body either becomes resistant to insulin or doesn’t produce the necessary amount. In most cases, type 2 diabetes can be prevented with exercise, healthier eating, and regular doctor visits. With the great diabetes initiatives under way, I rarely hear any projects geared towards type 1 diabetics.

The cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown, but scientists believe genetics and the environment contribute to the body’s own immune system attacking and destroying insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. It can’t be prevented by a simple prescription of more exercise and healthier eating. Organizations including JDRF are currently looking into possible cures such as, pancreatic islet cell transplantation. But, until there is a cure, it is important that programs are created that teach children – the population most affected by the disease – how to manage their diabetes and provide a stigma-free atmosphere.

Once, we had a participant who refused to test her blood sugar in front of anyone. Her mother pleaded with us to help her test in public because not testing could have tremendous implications. Initially, we could not understand why she would not test in public, but quickly realized that she was uncomfortable about having the disease. By the end of the semester, she was testing in front of the other kids. Unfortunately, many children just like her, who feel embarrassed and isolated, don’t have access to programs geared towards their specific needs.

The kids find comfort in meeting people just like them, often showing off their cool insulin-pump cases or sharing stories of when their blood sugar dropped so low they had to be rushed to hospital. If we begin to provide educational venues for children with this chronic disease, then the $58 billion dollars the nation spends annually on type 1 and type 2 diabetes related complications could be significantly reduced. Type 1 diabetes may not be preventable, but its long-term complications such as nerve damage, heart disease, blindness, and kidney disease can be prevented. These educated diabetic children will grow into well-informed adults who are armed with the knowledge to be guardians of their health.
Do you know anyone with type I diabetes? Are there any programs in your area that target children with type 1 diabetes? What else can be done to educate children with the condition?

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