Although diabetes is one of the nation’s leading health problems, few people understand why this condition develops and how it’s treated. But 15-year-old Jordyn Tyler and 17-year-old Brett VanderPloeg are experts on the subject. Both have type 1 diabetes—a form of the disease in which the pancreas no longer produces enough insulin, a hormone necessary to convert sugar into energy. As a result, they must take daily injections of insulin.
“Type 1 diabetes is caused when the body’s immune system destroys the pancreas’ insulin-making cells,” says Mario Brakin, M.D., medical director of the Pediatric Endocrine Center at Miller Children’s Hospital Long Beach who cares for Jordyn and Brett. “On the other hand, type 2 diabetes is often triggered by obesity and physical inactivity. In this case, the pancreas makes insulin, but the body is unable to use it correctly. Type 2 diabetes, which is currently at epidemic levels in children, can be avoided through weight loss and exercise, but type 1 diabetes currently cannot be prevented.”
Now a sophomore at Torrance High School, Jordyn was 10 when admitted to the hospital’s pediatric endocrine center. Her blood-sugar level was 750 (65 to 99 is normal). For the previous month, the petite fifth grader had been insatiably hungry and thirsty—two common symptoms of diabetes. But when 5-foot-tall Jordyn dropped to 71 pounds despite her voracious appetite, her parents became alarmed. “I could see her fading before my eyes,” recalls Jordyn’s mother, Tammy.
Brett’s experience was similar. Now a junior at Valley Christian School in Cerritos, he was only 8 when admitted to Miller Children’s Hospital with a blood-glucose level of 488. “It was very frightening,” says Brett’s father, Mike.
At Miller Children’s Hospital Long Beach, a team of pediatric endocrinologists, certified diabetes educators, nurse specialists and dietitians began a family-centered program of diabetes education while stabilizing the preteens’ blood sugar. The goal: to teach the young patients and their families how to handle the delicate task of balancing medication, food and exercise so potential long-term complications of the disease such as blindness, kidney failure, heart disease and nerve damage can be avoided.
“My nurses and doctors explained everything in terms I understood,” says Brett. Within 72 hours, the children and their parents knew how to measure and inject insulin, use a glucose monitor, and plan meals based on physical activity, insulin intake and other factors. Five days after the young patients were admitted, they and their families were ready to try it on their own. “The first night we got home, I asked my dad to give me my insulin injection,” says Jordyn. “After that, I did it by myself.”
Thanks to advances in insulin pump therapy, Jordyn and Brett had to administer their own insulin injections for only about two years before they were able to switch to the pump. “This beeper-sized device can be programmed to deliver small amounts of insulin constantly through a small tube inserted under the skin—and larger doses are delivered to handle the carbohydrate intake of meals or snacks,” says Trudy Bly, R.N., C.D.E., a clinical nurse diabetes educator who teaches children how to deal with the disease.
“It’s changed my life,” says Brett, who’s used the pump for seven years. “It gives me lots of flexibility in meal size, timing and exercise.” Jordyn, who’s been on the pump for three years and qualified for the Junior Olympics in volleyball last summer, is equally enthusiastic. “I love it,” she says.
Both teenagers have seen their average blood-glucose levels improve substantially because of the device. “The nurses and doctors at Miller Children’s made me realize that diabetes wasn’t the end of the world,” says Brett, who volunteers with Jordyn to help pediatric patients adjust to the insulin pump at sleepovers held by the hospital. “It’s just another stage of life I can deal with.”