This Sunday is the annual JDRF Walk to Cure Diabetes. It will be my family's fourth time participating and supporting this cause. I didn't solicit money this year, opting to make a donation myself, but if you're feeling charitable and have some extra money to throw around, toss it towards the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
At the age of 23, my younger sister was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and, in order to stay healthy, had to drastically change her lifestyle and diet. Type 1, or Juvenile, diabetes occurs when the body stops producing insulin, the hormone needed to move sugars from the blood in to cells where it can be used and stored. There is no cure, yet, so this lifelong illness requires constant blood sugar monitoring and insulin injections. Without vigilance, long term complications include blindness and foot or leg amputation.
Type 1 diabetics need to watch their carbohydrate intake, so my sister's diet consists of mostly salads, fruit, and lean meats. The more carbohydrates she eats, the more insulin she needs to take. Over time, the body builds up a resistance to synthetic insulin, like any other drug, so it is important for her to not over do it in the carb department.
Sunday morning our family will gather on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, along with thousands of other people whose lives have been affected by Type 1 diabetes, to walk in hopes of finding a cure. As we always do, we'll get lunch afterwards. I'll order according to what looks good on the menu, while my sister will sit beside me silently calculating how much insulin she'll need to take if she orders this sandwich or that salad. We'll order iced tea and I'll use sugar. She'll choose Splenda or Sweet n Low. After lunch I'll probably order dessert, feeling that I deserve it after walking 3 miles carrying one or both of my kids, and my sister will look at it longingly, maybe sneaking a bite or two after injecting more insulin into her thigh. While I relax, my healthy pancreas will release the right amount of insulin to process whatever I choose. For my sister, though, the simple act of eating a meal becomes a complicated math problem of carbs versus insulin units, a dance of choices and consequences. Every meal, every day, for the rest of her life.
At first, all the nuances of this disease were quite daunting, but with courage and strength she now gracefully keeps her blood sugar under control. (She recently started a blog, and you can check her out here.) She is a woman who loves hard, laughs easily and often, and, despite the challenges diabetes poses, is determined and committed enough to remain healthy for the rest of her life. I'm very lucky to call her my sister and my friend, and I hope that in her lifetime there will be a real way to cure this disease rather than merely controlling it. And then maybe then she'll order her own dessert!