Personal struggle leads student to build group for diabetics
“It’s not like I can put ‘diabetic’ on my resume,” Kassidey Short jokes, laughing softly. Humor aside, the University of Washington undergraduate has a point: Given the time she spends managing her condition, not to mention monetary costs, diabetes is a full-time job.
Because Short was diagnosed at age 6, she grew up relying on her mother to help her manage her condition. Now that she's in college and working two jobs, she has to take care of herself—a change she recognizes other students must also be struggling with. She is working with the College Diabetes Network to create a group for students on campus who have diabetes.
“Diabetics are the only people who understand what diabetics have to do every day,” Short said.
In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas fails to produce insulin. To keep blood sugar within a safe range, insulin injections are used to lower high blood sugar, while eating sugary foods helps raise low blood sugar.
“Everything in my life affects my blood sugar: Stress, different moods, food,” Short said. Her blood sugar, in turn, affects her mood and her success rate in different situations.
Management of type 1 can vary dramatically during different life stages, said Dr. Irl Hirsch, a UW professor of medicine who practices at the UW Medical Center Endocrine and Diabetes Care Center. Young adults in particular often experience difficulties. Hirsch and his colleagues are developing an adolescent transition clinic to help young people adjust.
“At this age group, there are many other issues related to normal development and maturation—dating, recreational drugs and alcohol, self-care—that, when you add diabetes, just make it much more complicated,” he said.
Short experienced this firsthand. After her childhood feelings of confidence and fearlessness, middle school brought bullying and misunderstandings: Once a substitute teacher told her to get off her ‘phone’ in class when she was checking her blood sugar. She avoided divulging her condition even to friends. She rallied in high school but didn’t take care of herself the way she should have, and the reality of her situation still hadn’t sunk in.
“Then I came to college, and that’s when it hit me: I am diabetic,” she said.
A pump permanently attached to her body delivers insulin every few minutes; she in turn must enter how many carbohydrates she eats at each meal and whether or not her blood sugar is off. Every three months, she visits her endocrinologist to receive a hemoglobin A1c test which gives a history of glucose control over the past three months. These treatment advances are a far cry from her childhood experience of injecting herself with insulin multiple times per day, and she said that progress has aided her greatly.
Pump technology didn’t exist before the early ‘80s, Hirsch said. He came to UW in the early ‘90s specifically to join a large, federally-funded clinical trial that ended up proving how insulin management dramatically improved long-term outcomes for patients with diabetes. Hirsch is currently involved in projects that seek to advance insulin-delivery mechanisms, such as insulin-generating stem cells and delivering insulin bound to proteins.
Though self-care is easier for Short because of these innovations, it does fluctuate depending on what else is going on in her life. Fear of down-the-road complications alternates between being a motivator and an inhibitor.
“Sometimes I’m like, ‘Screw it, I’m going to eat the worst possible thing I can eat,’ to get back at it. It’s just like any other health thing, eating or exercising: When people get busy, they may not do as well at it,” she said.
Short’s timing establishing a diabetes group is spot-on: For reasons not understood, doctors are seeing more high school and college-aged people who have type 1, Hirsch said. He also said a campus group could be “wonderful potential support” for students.
“I hate calling it a disease because I don’t think it’s a disease,” Short said. “I actually appreciate everything that diabetes has taught me, and it’s made me grow into who I am now.”
For more information on the group Short is building, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.