Three kids at Star Hill Elementary show Type 1 diabetes doesn't slow them down

People with diabetes have lives akin to a circus tightrope walker: always striving to find a perfect balance.

For children with diabetes, treating their condition becomes a routine part of daily existence.

“I just can’t go walking off to do what I want,” said 9-year-old Riely Martinez, a third-grade student at Camden’s Star Hill Elementary School. “If I go spend the night with some friends, my mom has to talk to their parents and tell them about the symptoms. If they don’t know I have diabetes, it can be a big problem.”

Riely is one of three students who have Type 1 diabetes and who took part in an awareness assembly April 11 at Star Hill. Sponsored by the nonprofit Delaware JDRF Chapter, it brought Riely, fifth-grader Owen Hill and third-grader Jennifer Luu in front of their classmates to call attention to the disease.

The assembly marked the beginning of a two-week effort to raise funds. It will culminate April 24 as Star Hill students take a break from their schoolwork in a walk to support research.

Two types

In general, diabetes patients have consistently high levels of sugar, or glucose, in their blood. Extracted from foods, primarily carbohydrates, glucose provides the energy needed for cells in the body and is transferred from blood to cells by reacting with the hormone insulin.

Insulin is produced by the pancreas, a spongy organ under the liver. Diabetes occurs when the pancreas fails to produce and distribute enough insulin into the bloodstream. The lack of insulin needed to break down glucose can result in damage to vital organs, blindness, heart and kidney disease, cancer and nerve damage.

The two major types are called Type 2 and Type 1. Type 2 accounts for about 95 percent of diabetes patients in the United States and mostly affects people as they grow older. Formerly known as non-insulin-dependent or adult-onset diabetes, it can be managed with weight control, exercise and good eating habits. If these are not enough to control blood sugar, Type 2 patients may require insulin injections or other forms of medication.

Riely, Owen, and Jennifer have Type 1 diabetes, which means their body’s immune system has destroyed the pancreatic cells that make insulin. Type 1 appears during childhood or the teen years and affects about 5 percent of the population. In the past, it was known as insulin-dependent or juvenile diabetes.

Because Type 1 diabetes has no cure, it may be treated only through constant monitoring of food intake and regular insulin injections.

‘My legs shake’

All three Star Hill students are remarkably accepting of the disease and well-versed how it affects their lives and families.

Of his condition, Riely said, “It hasn’t changed my life too much. I still go outside and play a lot.”

But Riely can tell when his glucose level gets out of kilter.

“I begin to feel low like my blood sugar is low,” he said. “My legs shake, and I’m tired for some reason.”

When this happens, Riely experiences many symptoms of low blood glucose or hypoglycemia, include shaking, twitching and weakness. Extreme hypoglycemia results when the blood sugar level drops too low.

Other telltale signs include lethargy and mental impairment.

“Once my blood sugar was 25, and I forgot everything, including my birthday and where I was,” he said.

To combat low blood glucose, doctors recommend a dose of dextrose or other simple types of glucose.

Despite knowing he’ll never outgrow the need for constant monitoring and wearing electronic devices to measure and adjust his glucose levels, Riely remains upbeat.

“I’ve been through a lot of tough situations, but I still manage to stay happy,” he said.

Just another kid

Owen wears a monitor taped to his arm and one on his stomach that delivers insulin when needed, eliminating the need for injections.

Owen learned about his diabetes just before Christmas 2015.

His father, Kyle, who teaches at Star Hill, noticed his son wasn’t feeling well and sent him to the school nurse for testing, Owen said.

“Then we went to the doctor and, after that, we went to [A.I. Dupont Children’s Hospital], and that’s how I found out I had diabetes,” Owen said.

Hospitalized for several days, Owen was released just in time for the holiday.

“I didn’t understand it at first, but I was like, ‘OK,’” he said. “When they said it would be for the rest of my life, I knew it wasn’t good.”

Hill said the device used by his son makes it a lot easier on the kids.

“Without them, he would have to get shots every time he eats or when his blood sugar gets high,” Hill said.”

Cell phones apps allow father and son to monitor Owen’s condition. And the technology has eased the family’s burden of manually checking the youngster’s blood sugars, especially at night.

“We didn’t get much sleep,” Hill said.

Owen has made it a point to learn as much as possible about diabetes, partly so he understands what is happening to him, and partly to let people know that while he’s different from others, he’s not going to infect or hurt anyone.

“I don’t think of myself as having a disease,” Owen said. “It’s a medical condition. It’s not contagious. I can go and do pretty much anything I want.”

His 5-year-old twin sisters don’t pay attention to the devices Owen wears, or the caution used when preparing his meals or planning family activities.

“They just treat me like another kid,” he said.

No warning

Jasmine Smith certainly doesn’t look like any third-grader, but she’s a regular presence in Jennifer’s elementary school class.

Smith, a pediatric LPN, is Jennifer’s constant companion, staying at her side throughout the school day to monitor the 9-year-old’s health.

Jennifer likes to say she can’t bother to take care of herself, and that’s why she needs Smith with her.

“I do not like to do things myself, and that’s because I’m really lazy,” she said, emphasizing the last word with a grin.

But that’s not the whole story, said Smith, who works for the pediatric division of Bayada Home Health Care Services and Epic Health Services.

Originally from Vietnam, Jennifer’s family came to the United States because she could not get proper treatment in their country.

Because she lost 97 percent of her pancreas to disease, the little girl is asymptomatic when it comes to her diabetes, meaning there’s never any warning or indication when her blood sugar is too high or too low, Smith said.

“Jen is unique,” Smith said. “Her story is deeper than if she had been born with Type 1. She essentially has no pancreas.”

Jennifer takes another medication to replace enzymes normally produced by the organ, and Smith also uses an electronic monitor to keep an eye on Jennifer’s condition.

Jennifer’s family must be especially careful with preparing her menus and watching her physical activities.

For Jennifer, it also means missing out on some things.

“I can’t do gymnastics, which I really like to do,” she said. “And I miss having candy, especially Jolly Ranchers.”