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Stop ignoring diabetes: a pediatrician’s perspective

Life with diabetes is hard. Life with a child with diabetes is harder.

You see, children with type 1 diabetes have no working pancreas. The pancreas is a magical organ that helps our bodies respond to the food we eat (or don’t eat) to keep our blood sugar within a nice tight range. It allows us to fast, if needed, without our blood sugar falling so dangerously low that our brain stops functioning. It does this by releasing insulin, a hormone, in perfect coordination with what we eat without us ever having to think about it. Children (and adults) with type 1 diabetes cease to make insulin. The special cells within the pancreas that do so are attacked and killed by their body’s own immune system for reasons we don’t totally understand. It’s not because they ate too much sugar. It’s not because they were overweight or underweight or breastfed or formula fed or for any other reason in their control.

The parents of children with type 1 diabetes become their child’s pancreas. They do so by monitoring their child’s blood sugar and responding to the number by providing food, insulin, or both. This requires children with type 1 diabetes to withstand finger pokes and insulin shots measuring to the dozens each day. It requires parents to be up in the middle of the night, sometimes several times, to poke their child’s finger or toes in their sleep to make sure the blood sugar level is safe. Because blood sugar is affected by all of our body rhythms it can be very unpredictable.

Things like a mild upper respiratory infection or a stressful day can send blood sugars into a tailspin that can be very difficult to get back under control. A “good day” in the life of a parent of a diabetic is simply one where their child’s blood sugar remained steady and predicable. A bad day often means a trip to the emergency room for a dangerous high sugar or low blood sugar.

Of course, the brunt of the disease is on the child. At present, type 1 diabetes is an incurable disease. It is also a disease that is very cruel, often leading to many secondary complications as these children age into adults. It can steal their vision and increase their risk for heart attack. It can make pregnancy and childbirth complicated. And imagine, as a toddler or preschooler what it must be like to watch everyone else eating so freely when every bite of your food is measured out and when you are often told you cannot have the thing you want right now because of your blood sugar.

November is National Diabetes Awareness Month, an informational campaign to bring awareness to the general public about diabetes, including what it’s like to live life with diabetes. Familiarize yourself with type 1 diabetes in honor of these parents and children and their tremendous struggles. Spend some time with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation to learn about type 1 diabetes and to look for local events. All month long, in nearly every city and town, people will be coming together to raise money and awareness about diabetes. Join a walk, spread the word, and learn what we can do to support those families bravely facing diabetes every day. Help them turn “type 1 into type None”!

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About Dr. Sara Connolly, Bundoo Medical Director

Sara Connolly, MD, FAAP, is a Board Certified Pediatrician who practices in Palm Beach County, Florida. She completed her residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital at the University of Miami, where she served as Chief Resident. She has a passion for child advocacy and has worked on the local, state, and national level to increase access to care for children. Her interests include nutrition, breastfeeding, and parenting skills.

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