Maressa Curran has lived with type 1 diabetes for 21 years. At age 23, she can care for herself now, but it hasn’t always been that way. Attending school in the mid-1990s, she found little support for diabetic students because awareness and diagnosis of the disease, especially in children, was lacking.
“The faculty (in general) did not understand, and that has to do with education and training,” says Curran, a senior at Arizona State University and an intern at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF).
During her earlier school years, Curran needed to eat at certain times of the day and test her blood sugar periodically so that the level wouldn’t go too low, which could have resulted in a seizure. But school officials would not allow her to test her blood sugar, eat snacks or take insulin in class, she says. She was required to go to the nurse’s office for those things, which meant missing at least a half hour of class and sometimes more per day.
Later, in high school, Curran would sometimes test her blood sugar in class when the teacher wasn’t looking and go the restroom to give herself insulin shots because it took less time than going the nurse’s office.
“Some of them (teachers) understood if they had a personal experience with a diabetic, but some of them didn’t understand. They saw it as way of trying to get out of class,” Curran says.
Curran and other diabetes awareness advocates say times are changing for the better in the classroom for diabetics.
U.S. government statistics show that 28.5 million Americans — 8.3 percent of the population — are diabetic. The weight of that number has accelerated the demand for increased awareness, better treatment methods and a search for a cure.
High-profile diabetics, such as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, help raise awareness about the disease. Sotomayor, 57, a diabetic since she was 8, recently spoke to 150 diabetic children as part of JDRF’s Children’s Congress in Washington.
Increased diabetes awareness has led to legislation that has helped promote better diabetic management practices for Arizona’s school children. In 2008, the Arizona Legislature passed a law (SB1229) that allows school districts to “adopt policies and procedures for pupils with diabetes to permit them to manage their diabetes while in class, anywhere on school grounds or at school-sponsored events.” The law encourages schools to work closely with parents and students in forming written diabetes management plans.
Although the law did not mandate that schools permit students to test their blood sugar level and take insulin in class, it did give schools the ability to work with students and parents in going beyond “reasonable accommodation,” for those with disabilities, which was already part of federal law, diabetes experts say.
In addition to state law, technological advances have also made it easier for students to cope with their disease while at school.
Eight-year old Adalyne Rose wears a small insulin pump that dispenses insulin to her body as needed, without requiring a syringe. She also carries a wireless constant glucose monitor, or CGM, that shows her blood sugar level at all times through a sensor under her skin. She doesn’t need to prick her finger to test her blood sugar (as long as the sensor is functioning properly), and she doesn’t need to take injections, which means she misses little class time, if any.
Adalyne’s parents, Wendy and Jason Rose, are thankful for the technology that enables their daughter to attend school with fewer complications than in the past. “The pump allows us to manage her insulin needs throughout the day,” Wendy says.
Carolyn Allen, a former Republican state senator from Scottsdale, sponsored SB1229 during the 2008 session.
“I heard from many constituents, and there was a group who came to see me, not just from my district, but from across the state,” Allen says. “They wanted to have the opportunity to live more normal lives and they needed the legislation to do that.”
While the bill moved through the process, some school districts said they wanted to be able to help students manage diabetes without disrupting the operation of the class, Allen recalls. Advocates say that process helped open the door for the American Diabetes Association and JDRF Southwest Chapter to offer awareness programs to schools.
“A lot of it is about education and the Legislature didn’t understand,” says Laura Landon, executive director of the American Diabetes Association in Phoenix.
For example, ADA offers a program that combines an activity, such as a walk or athletic event, with education on diabetes and its symptoms, Landon says. Some children, after attending an event, have diagnosed themselves properly as having diabetes, she adds.
Landon theorizes that more and more young people are being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes perhaps due to lack of exercise and poor eating habits, which lead to obesity. “A lot of people in this country are very unsure about the nutritional component,” Landon says.
Landon explains that type 2 diabetes is a metabolic disorder and not an autoimmune disorder, as type 1 diabetes has been defined. That means 58 percent of those suffering from type 2 diabetes “can prevent or significantly delay the onset with diet and exercise.”
Gregg Milliken, 46, a local author and diabetes awareness advocate, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes more than 35 years ago. He wishes he had the kind of support children today have when he was in school. Back then, he says he was afraid to even mention that fact that he had diabetes for fear of being different. As far as testing his blood sugar level, he didn’t do much of that because there was no effective blood sugar test.
“All we had were urine strips and we really had no medical support as I remember,” Milliken says.
As a result, he didn’t test his blood sugar frequently throughout the day, as many diabetics do now.
“There was really no way to stop from going low because there was no regime as there is today like scientific diet guides, high-quality test equipment and insulin pumps,” says Milliken, who serves on the ADA’s 2012 Tour de Cure, a bicycle race to raise money for diabetes education and awareness.
Complications for diabetes left Milliken legally blind for a period of his life. He eventually regained his sight after multiple eye surgeries, better health management and faith.
“Companies should adopt wellness programs that can test employees for diabetes so that as a culture we can get ahead of the disease and prevent the complications from taking lives and causing loss of sight, amputations, stroke and heart disease,” Milliken says.
The American Diabetes Association, a nonprofit organization, uses its donations to fund awareness, education and research for both type of diabetes. Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), a national nonprofit known for its annual Walk to Cure Diabetes, primarily funds research in the effort to find a cure for type 1 diabetes. In 2010, more than 21,000 people participated in two walks that combined to generate $1.3 million, according to JDRF.
According to the American Diabetes Association, type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed in children and young adults, and was previously known as juvenile diabetes. In type 1 diabetes, the body does not produce insulin. Insulin is a hormone that is needed to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy needed for daily life. Only 5 percent of people with diabetes have this form of the disease. With the help of insulin and other treatments, even young children with type 1 diabetes can learn to manage their condition and live long, healthy, happy lives.
Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes. Millions of Americans have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, and many more are unaware they are at high risk. Some groups have a higher risk than others for developing type 2 diabetes.
In type 2 diabetes, either the body does not produce enough insulin or the cells ignore the insulin. Insulin is necessary for the body to be able to use glucose for energy. When you eat food, the body breaks down all of the sugars and starches into glucose, which is the basic fuel for the cells in the body. Insulin takes the sugar from the blood into the cells. When glucose builds up in the blood instead of going into cells, it can lead to complications.