Living with Type 1 diabetes

Juneau's Krista Thomson talks about her experience

Posted: Sunday, April 19, 2009

Juneau-Douglas High School freshman Krista Thomson, 14, is one of few youth in Juneau dealing with Type 1 diabetes, and in an effort to increase awareness, she and her family will host a meeting of others diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes next month.

According to Cynthia Nickerson, president of the Alaska Association of Diabetes Educators and certified case manager and diabetes educator for Bartlett Regional Hospital, there is an estimated 650,000 to 1.3 million people with Type 1 diabetes in the United States.

"Type 1 diabetes develops when the body's immune system attacks and destroys cells in the pancreas which make insulin," Nickerson explained. "Because people with Type 1 diabetes produce little or no insulin, it must be obtained from an outside source (insulin injections)."

Unlike Type 2 diabetes (formally called non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus or adult-onset diabetes), which is usually associated with poor diet and exercise, Type 1 diabetes, previously known as juvenile diabetes, is usually diagnosed in children and young adults.

"In Type 1, for some reason, in juveniles, something triggers their pancreas to stop producing insulin," Krista's mother, Margie Thomson, said. "In Type 2, a lot of people can control their blood sugar by exercise or diet and may not ever have to take insulin shots."

Because insulin is a hormone needed to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy necessary for daily functioning, it is important that those diagnosed with it constantly monitor their insulin levels.

To manage her own insulin levels, Krista must test her blood sugar before she eats any meal or snack. Then, depending on how many carbohydrates she wants to eat, she will then take an insulin shot. She also must test her blood sugar again two hours after eating.

If she doesn't monitor her blood sugar and take her insulin shots, Krista said her blood sugar can either get too high (hyperglycemia) or too low (hypoglycemia). If it's too high, Thomson said she can become lazy or lethargic.

"It can make me tired, where I don't want to do anything," she explained. "Or I don't have enough energy to go to soccer, that kind of stuff."

High blood sugar also can lead to long-term effects, she said.

"When you're blood sugar is high, it causes lots of complications later in life, like kidney disease, blindness, heart attack, stroke, lots of things like that," she said.

"Uncontrolled diabetes can lead to cardiovascular disease (coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke), blindness, limb amputation, kidney failure and premature death," Nickerson said.

And because Krista exercises a lot through her participation in the Juneau Soccer Club and the JDHS soccer team, her blood sugar may often drop, and she has to compensate by decreasing her insulin.

"Living with diabetes can be particularly challenging," Nickerson said. "It's a balancing act - and it's not easy to deal with. ... In addition to the social, physical and mental changes during those years, people with Type 1 diabetes have the additional burdens - injecting insulin and checking blood glucose multiple times a day."

Krista also won two awards at the Southeast Alaska Regional Science Fair this year for her research on how different foods affect blood glucose. She received the Juneau Medical Society's and Bartlett Hospital's Stethoscope Award and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services' U.S. Public Health Service Award from the U.S. Surgeon General.

"Krista has embraced her Type 1 diabetes by choosing to research diabetes further and learn to apply what she learned from her science project to her personal health condition," Nickerson said.

As Krista and her family come to terms with Type 1 diabetes, they hope to reach out to other families who are affected by it.

"We thought it might be a good opportunity for some of the other adults and children who have Type 1 in Juneau to get together to just see each other," Margie Thomson said. "Because it's such an individual journey, but it's nice to know there are other folks."

The Thomsons will hold a gathering next month for anyone with Type 1 diabetes. Call them at 586-4619 for a specific date and location.

• Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at 523-2272 or

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