When a young person with type 1 diabetes leaves home for the first time, it’s often a difficult adjustment for the parents as well as their child. Tyler Stevenson is 20 years old, in his second year at Florida State. This is what he told us about his life in college with diabetes.
When I left home for college, my parents were absolutely worried, 100 percent–scared out of their minds. It’s just a mom thing There’s no mom out there that’s going to be like, “Oh, you’re going to college, you’re diabetic, it’s no big deal.” They’re all going to worry, but if you prove to them that you’re taking care of yourself and doing a good job, then they’ll stop worrying.
My mom had full faith in me because she knows me, but she was worried about me having to manage school, get the grades, and maintain diabetes. She was just kind of sad that I had to go through that: She compared it to having another class, because diabetes takes at least that amount of time. So she was worried about how I was going to be able to maintain all of it and still succeed.
When I first got up here to college–I’m not going to lie–it was a challenge, a very different environment. In high school, I had a uniform schedule: I’d get up at a certain time, classes were at a regular time, then I had practice, study time, and bed time, and then I’d re-do it again in the morning. At home when I’d eat, I’d sit down and calculate what I was eating. I’d get my pen out and write it all down: “This is what I’m eating, this is the bolus of insulin I need to give myself.” Then I’d give myself my insulin, and then I’d start eating.
College, as anybody knows, is pretty random. There is no schedule. You have your classes, and other than that, you’re doing different things all the time. So initially, when I was a freshman living in a dorm, my challenge was finding the time to stop for a moment, sit down and write everything out, calculate it, and then give myself the bolus before I ate. Sometimes I was like “Oh my god, I’ve got to eat in two seconds, I’m late for class…I’ve just got to check my blood, estimate, give myself the insulin, and go.”
I can’t stand going high, that’s one thing that drives me nuts, so I would actually overcompensate and over-bolus myself. So I kept having lows–sixties and fifties, a lot of eighties. At college it’s especially bad because you’re on campus and you have to walk everywhere. If you’re low and you’re a good ways away from your home or dorm, you have to walk to get to your stuff. Luckily I learned to think ahead in high school, so I always take something with me to treat a low.
When I told my parents about what was happening with the lows, they sat down with me and said “Okay, instead of so much writing everything down, start putting labels on some of the foods in your dorm.” If a bag of chips is 18 carbs, I know that’s 1.8 units of insulin that I have to give myself, so I just go ahead and label that box of chips ‘1.8.’ It’s right there, and I can just put it right into my pump and go. I started doing that with a lot of my foods, and that cut down on time. I also gave myself a couple of little charts to remember what to bolus for certain foods, so when I got the foods, I already knew what to bolus without even having to figure it out. Once I started doing that, everything started to fall into place.
I learned my lesson, and I’m back on it now. Now, no matter what the situation is or how late I am or where I’m going, the world stops until I get this in order, and then I go. You just have to do that. And now that I’ve been able to do that, it’s been a lifesaver. That’s the way I used to do things–it’s just that college changes you a little bit. But I see now that that’s the way it needs to be. It’s all about priorities, that’s my main thing. My challenge, my college challenge, was finding the correct time management formula to give my diabetes the time it needs.
The main trick is to find out what you calculate your bolus on. I use a scale of 10. That’s kind of a lot, but I’m a really big guy, 6 feet, 4 inches, 215 pounds, so I eat all the time. Anyway, when you find out your scale, pre-calculate for the food that you eat a lot of. I eat a ton of chicken, I eat a ton of steak, and I eat a lot of mashed potatoes. Chicken and steak, as you know, have hardly any carbs, but mashed potatoes are another story. l get the brand, I look at the carb count, and then I put what I have to bolus on top of the box so I don’t even have to worry about it. I don’t have to calculate it, and I don’t have to waste time.
Eating at the cafeteria was tricky. I think that was part of my downfall because they just don’t offer healthy choices. So I would eat at the cafeteria on certain days like when they were serving steak or chicken, and then, luckily, I have a sub place. I love sub sandwiches, and they’re loaded with protein and not a whole lot of carbs, not too terrible compared to everything else. And Stouffers became my best friend. I found lower carb ones that I like and stocked up on those. Between that and the dorm meal plan and the occasional “healthy” fast food like subs, it wasn’t that bad.
I think I have learned a few things from having diabetes. Don’t get me wrong: If you guys have a cure, I will be the first one to fill out those forms. But the majority of my friends have no health problems, and they’re all in fraternities–you know how college is–and they’re pretty wild, and they drink a lot. They don’t get into trouble, but they’re not as focused when it comes to school. They’re more about the party scene. I think that being diabetic has kind of matured me. You have to have different priorities. You have to keep your health in check because you’re already starting behind the eight ball, your health is already not that great, so you have to really watch that. And you have to get your grades in school, so you don’t have time for any of that other stuff. I’m very in control of myself.
If you’re a parent, my advice is, have a little bit of faith in your kids to do what they’re supposed to do, especially if you have conditioned them well. One thing I always do with my parents, every day, is give them a blood sugar reading in the morning before I start my day and in the evening when I go to bed. It gives everybody peace of mind. When I wake up in the morning, I check my blood, eat my breakfast, take my shower, call my parents and tell them my blood sugar number and what I ate, bang, bang, bang, and that’s it. Then I go to class and do my day. Same thing in the evening…I do it always twice a day.
Tyler on Telling Friends and Girls About Diabetes
My good friends that I’ve went to high school with, they all know I’m diabetic. But people that I meet, right off the bat I don’t tell them that I’m a diabetic. It has nothing to do with being ashamed of diabetes, but if I’m just going to see a person in class and that’s it, they don’t really need to know my business. I feel that there’s a level of privacy until you get to be a certain level of a friend. People that I talk to maybe once a week, I don’t bring it up, because I don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable, and I just don’t want people to feel sorry for me.
I always tell girls, though–that is the great exception. For a girl, I completely change my rule. If I’m going out on a date with a girl, way before the date occurs, she’s going to know I’m diabetic. I think it’s good to get that out on the table because some girls, and it’s really disgusting to say, but some girls don’t like it. I guess that it makes them uncomfortable. If it does make someone uncomfortable, then I need to know that, because I need to have nothing to do with that person. And also, I’m going to get my pump out at the dinner table and give myself insulin. If I haven’t brought it up beforehand, she’s going to be like “What is that?” And you don’t want that to be your dinner topic, so that’s how I do it.