Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Learning to survive, and thrive

Six-year-old with Type 1 diabetes forced to grow up quickly in order to deal with daily responsibility of living with lifelong disease

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When Abby Reid pricks her finger at school, her friends often wonder if it hurts.

The vivacious, blue-eyed six-year-old doesn't mind explaining to her classmates that the blood tests she gives herself are painless.

"I don't feel a thing," says Abby, who several times a day, pokes her finger with a lancet and places a drop of blood in a special meter that measures her blood-sugar levels.

Even though her finger pokes have become an everyday part of life, she understands why they are so important.

"So I will know what my numbers are, and so the school will know," says the Beaverlodge Elementary School student who takes several blood tests and insulin injections daily.

Abby was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age two.

Unlike Type 2 diabetes, Type 1 is not brought on by lifestyle factors. Rather, scientists speculate the condition is triggered by an autoimmune reaction in which the body mistakenly destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.

Without insulin, the body cannot metabolize carbohydrates -- foods such as bread, fruit and vegetables that turn into sugar when digested.

That means the Grade 1 student has to take synthetic insulin through a needle to survive.

Abby's parents' goal: To keep her blood sugar as close to normal as possible. This requires balancing food, activity and insulin levels.

And while juggling their daughter's diet, exercise and medicine is second nature for the Reids, it wasn't always that way.

Abby's mother, Brenda Reid, admits that she was confused when she first learned of Abby's condition 41/2 years ago.

"It was just a shock and blur," says the Charleswood mother-of-three, noting that she had heard of Type 2 diabetes -- the kind that makes newspaper headlines and that is often reversible with healthy eating and exercise.

However, Type 1 was a mystery.

"I think we just didn't even have it on our radar. I think most people don't even know what Type 1 is unless they've come in contact with it.

"I didn't realize what caused it and I didn't know what went into taking care of her every day."

Reid recalls the time when the two-year-old was diagnosed. She and her kids were living in Brandon at the time.

Her husband, Jason, was working in Winnipeg. When he came back to Brandon for a visit, the fact that his youngest daughter had lost weight was especially apparent since he hadn't seen her for a couple of weeks. "I didn't notice the weight loss as much as he did,' says Reid.

Abby was also irritable, constantly thirsty and she often soaked through her diaper pull-ups.

So, Reid called the pediatrician, who ordered a fasting blood-glucose test on Abby the next morning.

That afternoon, the Reids got the news: Abby had Type 1 diabetes.

The following day, the family drove to Winnipeg and had a whirlwind two-day education session at the city's cutting-edge Diabetes Education Resource Centre.

The Reids learned that Abby's body was going into ketoacidosis due to excessively high blood sugars.

"They did bloodwork and got that first shot (of insulin) into her. She was starting to get her old personality back."

Doctors made it clear that high blood sugars over years can damage blood vessels and organs, leading to complications such as kidney damage, heart disease, circulatory issues and vision problems.

But rather than focusing on that, they taught the Reids about what it takes to manage Abby's blood sugars and keep her healthy.

"They had some diagrams. They worked so well with Abby," says Reid. "They had the little medical dummy pointing to where (the pancreas) was."

Today, counting carbohydrates, calculating insulin doses and keeping an eye on Abby is second nature for the Reids.

Their oldest daughter, Jenna, 17 often gives Abby her insulin injections.

Meanwhile, Abby knows to tell her teachers at school when she feels dizzy, gets shaky or feels oddly hungry.

Those are signs of low blood sugar -- that her injected insulin is working overtime -- and that she needs a box of juice.

She has learned to take her own blood tests. She's even starting to understand what the numbers mean.

"If she's a (6.0 millimoles per litre) she knows to have a snack like (celery with strawberry cream cheese) and not something that's a little bit carby-er," says Reid.

Reid admits that she worries that Abby might have a severe low blood-sugar episode at school that could lead to unconsciousness.

She has armed the school with fast-acting glucose injection kits. The former Starbucks manager now volunteers at school and takes comfort that she's always nearby in case of an emergency.

And she empowers Abby to take ownership of her diabetes.

Abby has just been named a Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation ambassador. Her new job requires her to kick off fundraising events and speak in public about her condition.

Abby says she's excited about her new duties, which will start at Starry Starry Night, an April 30 charity ball benefiting Type 1 diabetes research.

When asked if her new job is important, Abby answers quickly. "It is," she says. "I get to hand out teddy bears."

Pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Heather Dean says she has a deep admiration for Type 1 diabetes patients like Abby Reid.

"They learn very early on a sense of responsibility," says Dean, who has treated children with Type 1 diabetes for nearly three decades.

"Although they have to think about their diabetes, they are able to incorporate it in such an extraordinary way that adults don't.

"It's certainly taught me a lesson in terms of children's resilience."

Reid agrees and says Abby has shown her family how to handle adversity with grace.

"We've learned how strong a little person can be. Getting eight finger pokes a day and four or five shots of insulin is not something I would want for myself."

That's why Abby's mom dedicates her time to raising the public's awareness of Type 1 diabetes, a condition she says tends to get "lost in the shuffle."

Reid recalls a diabetes charity walk a couple of years ago at which Abby thought that she and her fellow walkers were literally searching for a cure for Type 1 diabetes.

Now that she's six, Abby understands that fundraising events are designed to help researchers find that cure.

"She knows... that mom works really hard to raise money so that scientists can find it. And she knows that she'll keep having to do the (blood tests) and taking the insulin until that day."

Have an interesting idea you'd like Shamona to write about? Contact her at shamona.harnett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2011 C1

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