The other diabetes
When Halle Stasyna was 11, she got sick. But this time it wasn't just another cold picked up at school.
"My father took me to our family doctor and he did a blood test and a urine test, thinking it could be juvenile diabetes," explain Halle, now 12. "Then my mom called my pediatrician, who said to go to emerg."
Her blood sugar was 35. A normal blood glucose level is 5. The diagnosis of juvenile - or Type 1 - diabetes was confirmed.
"I had never heard about diabetes before. I didn't know anything about it and I didn't know if it was going to affect my lifestyle. I didn't know if it could kill me."
Type 2 diabetes is the focus of most media coverage of the disease - including on this blog, where I regularly rail on about childhood obesity and what we need to do about it.
But the frightening truth is that Type 1 diabetes is the most common and devastating form of the illness. It's a nonpreventable autoimmune disease affecting more than 300,000 Canadians. In other words, there's nothing you can to do to stop this by cutting down on Froot Loops or making sure your kid puts down the controller.
It freaks me out as a parent that an otherwise healthy child can get this disease without warning (it oftens manifests with ordinary flu-like symtpoms), no sign of a scale creeping up or a blood test coming back with slightly elevated glucose. Halle is a slim, active girl who plays volleyball and takes dance lessons in ballet and jazz. But one day her body just quit producing insulin.
What struck me during our phone conversation was the diabetes-specific vocubulary that's now a part of her speech - she uses words and phrases like "sugars," "insulin," "carb count" and "pen needles" that you don't expect to hear coming out of the mouth of a 12-year-old. But this illness rockets its victims forward in maturity.
"My entire life has changed," said Halle recalling the day of her diagnosis. "Having diabetes now, it's a new normal. Everything was turned upside down."
"I think that having diabetes has made me somewhat more responsible and just having to take care of it all, you kind of adapt to it. You're looking at the backs of foods, at the nutrition guide."
"I think that I'm more consious of what I eat then other kids are, of course. I can still eat what I want as long as I give the appropriate insulin for it."
But if she wants to have a piece of cake at a friend's birthday party, she has to plan for it. "I test my blood sugar before. I use a scale sometimes. It tells you the carbohydrates in the food. I just put that number in my pump."
Of course the hundreds of pin pricks to test her blood sugar and the inconvenience of having to count carbohydrates and wear an insulin pump are only a tiny part of the picture. Diabetes is a leading cause of disease-related death, most often due to related heart and kidney disease and stroke. It can lead to blindness and amputations, and it comes with a lifetime burden of uncertainty.
There is no cure, although researchers are working tirelessly to find one. And that's the goal behind tomorrow's Ride for Diabetes Research. In 17 cities across Canada, corporate teams, many from the banking industry, will compete in a stationary bike-a-thon. Together they hope to raise $6.5 million.
"I know that some people have said that we're about 10 years away from a cure, to a thing called the artificial pancreas," said Halle. "It's basically a pump with a brain. It knows what to do if your blood sugars are high or low. It gives the appropriate doses without having to tell it."
Halle will be at the Toronto event, held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m., with her whole family.
"I'm hoping that we reach our goal, I'm hoping we earn a lot of money and I'm hoping everyone has a lot of fun."
See a video featuring Halle and others with Type 1 diabetes: