According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), close to 26 million people in the United States have diabetes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites diabetes as one of the leading causes of death in the nation. In an effort to raise awareness and promote research, the ADA has designated November as American Diabetes Month.
Gustavus students diagnosed with diabetes face challenges and complications associated with the disease while balancing the responsibilities of college.
Senior Dance and Psychological Science Major Rebecca Stewart was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2007 at age 15.
Exhibiting classic signs of diabetes, Stewart said the symptoms escalated when her high school swimming season ended, prompting doctors to test for both mononucleosis (more commmonly known as mono) and diabetes.
With heightened blood sugar levels, Stewart was taken by ambulance to the Children’s Hospital in Saint Paul.
While Stewart noted there has been no clearly defined cause of Type 1 diabetes, researchers believe it may stem from a mixture of genetic and environmental factors.
“It’s hard to look back because at that point, all I wanted to do is feel better. I’d been feeling so horrible, and I literally thought I was going to die,” Stewart said.
Stewart said that there is no “normal day” in the life of a diabetic, as fluctuating blood sugar levels and unexpected issues must be carefully monitored.
“The thing that sucks is that if you have a low blood sugar you just kind of have to stop what you’re doing and fix it, and that’s literally the only thing that matters at that point is just getting yourself better, because if you don’t treat your low blood sugar, you can’t really do anything else,” Stewart said.
As a dancer and member of the Gustavus Swim Team, Stewart also has to factor in the intensity of her activities.
“I really want to be in there dancing, or I want to be doing all the workouts the rest of my team is doing, but if I have a low blood sugar, I have to sit out, and I kind of feel like a little bit of a disappointment to my team,” Stewart said.
Stewart is passionate about diabetes activism and has attended several conferences and participates in the annual Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation’s Walk to Cure Diabetes. She also started her own diabetes blog in 2012, which has since garnered over 1,500 followers. Stewart is currently participating in the “diabadass” challenge this month on Facebook, as she updates daily photographs chronicling her experiences with diabetes.
Stewert also notes the stigmas and lack of understanding some still experience toward the disease.
“A lot of people think that it has to hold me back in some way, and it really doesn’t have to. As long as you have a good attitude about it, you can do whatever you want,” Stewert said.
Senior Biology Major Elisabeth Pederson has coped with diabetes since she was in seventh grade.
After several tests revealed extremely high blood sugar levels, Pederson received the diagnosis.
“It was kind of a difficult transition because I fought a lot with my parents who wanted me to quit all the sports that I was in, and the doctors supported my parent’s idea of that. I was like, just teach me what I need to do to control this because I’m not going to stop,” Pederson said.
At her parents’ insistence that summer, Pederson reluctantly attended Camp Needlepoint, a program in Wisconsin devoted to creating a fun camp experience in a safe atmosphere for those diagnosed with diabetes.
“It turned out to be amazing and loads of fun. It was like a normal camp, but you didn’t feel like you had to hide when you took shots,” Pederson said.
Pederson credits Camp Needlepoint for helping her to learn how to manage diabetes without letting it consume her life, and she has returned each year since as both a camper and in recent years as a counselor. Her role as a counselor has provided the opportunity to mentor younger campers and help them to gain greater independence in coping with diabetes.
Pederson said that Diabetes Awareness Month is important for raising awareness and for helping others learn how to respond in case someone is experiencing a problem with diabetes. Pederson is deliberate about carrying snacks and glucose tabs with her, and noted that Gustavus Health Services and Campus Safety are also equipped to help someone in a diabetic emergency.
“Diabetes, whether it’s Type 1 or Type 2 is becoming more prevalent in the country and in the world and just having people more aware of it is just gaining more support for finding a cure,” Pederson said.
The Epsilon Pi Alpha Fraternity annually focuses its philanthropic efforts around the diabetes cause.
Junior Communications Major Matt Timmons was inspired to join Epsilon Pi Alpha fraternity, whose philanthropy is diabetes and insulin awareness, after having Senior Nursing Major David Krebs as a Collegiate Fellow his first year.
Both Krebs and Timmons are diabetic, and Timmons noted that the dedication demonstrated by the Eppies “resonated deeply.”
“I truly think that at the core of all the members, every one of us is dedicated to doing all we can for our philanthropy and service as a whole,” Timmons said.
Timmons was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was 13 months old. He also attended Camp Needlepoint and expressed a deep appreciation for his experiences there. Pederson noted that she met Timmons while they were attending the same camp session before enrolling at Gustavus.
Like Stewart, Timmons has been involved in several activities focused on raising awareness, such as participating in the “Tour de Cure,” a bike ride sponsored by the ADA.
“It was such a festival, and I loved the sense of community,” Timmons said of the experience.
The Eppies have sponsored the “Take the Hill” Triathlon in support of diabetes management each year since it was created by Epsilon Pi Alpha alumn, Peter Nerothin ‘02. In 2005, Nerothin went on to found Insulindependence, a nonprofit group dedicated to supporting the diabetes community through education and recreation programs.
The week leading up to the triathlon has traditionally included other awareness raising elements, such as blood sugar screening in partnership with Rivers Edge Hospital and Clinic. The date of the triathlon has been set for Saturday, May 3. All proceeds from the triathlon directly benefit Insulindependence, improving the quality of life for those with diabetes. For more information about the triathlon, visit takethehilltri.org.
Though November is American Diabetes Month, for those living with the disease, diabetes is a daily effort. With increased awareness and funding, hope for a cure shines on the horizon. To learn more about American Diabetes Month, visit diabetes.org.