Sparring with Type 1 diabetes: Gabbi’s story
Whether she’s attending Spanish class, volunteering with her church, applying for colleges or attending one of many fencing lessons per week—Gabbi is a busy girl. As a Sacramento, California high school senior preparing to move away to college, 17-year-old Gabbi also finds time to fundraise for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF)—a philanthropy especially close to her heart, because not only does she find it to be a great cause—she also lives with Type 1 diabetes.
After being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of 5, Gabbi started learning lessons about being healthy in ways that her peers were not—she had to learn how to monitor her blood sugar and maintain healthy eating habits so that she wouldn’t experience the highs and lows that can be dangerous for all diabetics. When she was 6 she received her first insulin pump—a treatment device used to deliver timely insulin doses much in the same way a healthy pancreas delivers basal and bolus insulin throughout the body.
According to Gabbi’s mom, Madelon, this was a huge advance in technology that made managing her child’s diabetes much easier than it would have been even a few decades earlier—though teaching a 6-year-old how to protect a device attached to their body was an interesting experience.
“We taught her that it was like having a car,” says Madelon. “These devices are very expensive—so we told Gabbi that she had to take special care of it—and we’d say things like, ‘You wouldn’t want to put your car in a swimming pool, would you?!’ and we made it a game.”
Learning how to maintain a proper diet is one of the first major steps to managing any type diabetes—especially when it involves the whole family. “The entire family’s diet and lifestyle needs to change,” says Rebecca Russell, MPH, RD, community wellness and diabetes program director at Adventist Health Central Valley Network. She adds that it’s important to incorporate these habits into the family routine, because singling one child out can create a stigma—which can lead to self-esteem problems and eating disorders.
Gabbi says that food is a topic that comes up often when she is asked about her diabetes. “Sometimes people ask me, ‘How overweight were you when you were diagnosed?’ and I have to explain that it doesn’t work that way!” And because her parents worked so hard to incorporate healthy habits into the family dynamic at such a young age, she says she’s learned to be conscious of her diet and stays on top of her blood sugar levels as though it were second nature. “It’s a continuous thought that I have along with everything that I do throughout the day,” she says. And boy, does she do a lot.
“I’ve been fencing since the fifth grade,” says Gabbi, explaining how she must carefully monitor her blood sugar before, during, and after a match because the high-intensity sport can easily send her blood sugar crashing or skyrocketing. Despite the extra challenges she faces when competing, she’s still managed to become a champion fencer and has competed both nationally and internationally—and she devotes four days per week to lessons and competes in tournaments on the weekends; one of her favorite accomplishments was representing the USA in Warsaw, Poland.
“A lot of people ask me about my ‘machines’ during fencing,” she says, referring to the insulin pump she sports around her waist. “So it’s been a great opportunity to explain what Type 1 diabetes is and spread awareness throughout the fencing community.”
And though she is always keeping a watchful eye on her levels during the day (sometimes even during class, at her desk), the night time can pose a bit of an issue. The other device she wears, called a CGM (Continuous Glucose Monitor) is designed to trigger an alarm on her phone when she experiences lows and highs, so she can then take appropriate testing/insulin dosing action. “But the problem with me is that I sleep like a rock—so I don’t often wake up when my alarms go off,” Gabbi says. “My mom also gets the alarms on her phone so she comes to my rescue.”
Score one for mom! But what about when Gabbi goes to college next year?
“That’s why I’m so excited about potentially getting the new artificial pancreas/hybrid closed loop system,” she says. “It’ll help keep me in range in the middle of the night,” which puts her mind at ease while she applies for colleges across the country.
The artificial pancreas system—the Medtronic 670G hybrid closed loop system—is designed to combine the technology of the CGM and the insulin pump together so that the systems “talk to each other” to deliver insulin depending on the readings—this will allow less user input and steadier readings over time. While it still requires the user to intervene, it’s a huge technological step towards making the management of Type 1 completely automated—it made quite the wave in the medical community when it was approved in September by the FDA. Thanks to people like Gabbi and her parents, the JDRF has raised thousands of dollars to help make these breakthroughs a reality—primarily through trail races in California.
Gabbi says she hopes to get one of these systems before she leaves for college. “It would be nice to feel less dependent on my mom—we could rest easy, literally and figuratively,” she says. She’s also considered applying for a special service dog, which would be trained to detect low blood sugar drops and “nudge” her awake. Otherwise she hopes to find a compatible roommate that she can tag-team with to stay on top of the alarms.
Rebecca Russell of Adventist Health says that the best advice she can give someone with a chronic illness about to go to college is: “Don’t be afraid to talk about your diabetes—don’t keep it a secret! Identify your new providers, talk to your RA, talk to housing authority—find resources that will help keep you safe and healthy.” She adds with a chuckle, “Otherwise just be normal. Enjoy your experience!”
Hoping to major in Global or Public Health, Gabbi is excited about the idea of working abroad with underserved members of local communities to educate them about health, diet, wellness and help them get better access to healthcare. “That’s something that’s very important to me, to see people overcome their challenges—because that’s kind of something I’ve had to do, too.”
At the end of the day, Gabbi’s life is just like every other high school senior’s: busy, excited, energetic and ready to take on the world. “Everything is a learning experience, the highs and the lows,” she says. “I’m always going to strive to figure out better ways to get where I want to be—if something doesn’t work one day, I’ll do it differently the next. Diabetes isn’t an identity, it’s just something you have that other people might not—and I’ll never let that stop me from my dreams.”
To learn more about Type 1 diabetes, check out these resources: