A Chat with Kelli Kuehne on Life, Golf, and Diabetes

In 1994, Kelli Kuehne was on a roll. That year, she won the United States Girls Junior Amateur Golf Championship and a year later, she won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Golf Championship, repeating that win in 1996 while also taking the British Ladies Amateur Golf Championship. The roll continues. Today, Kelli Kuehne is still playing matches in the LPGA and, through it all, has never allowed type 1 diabetes to beat her on the golf course or in her life.

You describe yourself as “a professional golfer who lives with diabetes.” You face it physically as well as mentally. How do you do it?

I don’t think that having diabetes is something that should make me change the way I live my life. I was diagnosed at age 10 so I’ve had the disease for 22 years as of September. Yes, there were-and there are-challenges, but I was raised to be active and to take the initiative. When I was diagnosed, my whole family took an active role. They changed their lifestyle to accommodate me. I wasn’t raised in an environment where you feel sorry for yourself. That was unacceptable in my house. You can’t cure diabetes but you can fix a bad attitude-your mind set is a huge part of determining whether you are successful or not in controlling the disease. I think it’s true of life in general.

How did the diagnosis change your lifestyle? 

Well, first of all, it was a shock. My mom is from Texas and she’s a southern cook and she fries everything and it tastes damned good but its horrible for you. The night before I started treatment, we all went to Dairy Queen and I had an M&M Blizzard knowing the next day I was going in for treatment. They checked my blood sugar and it was 376.

So that day my mom started to prepare a lot more health conscious meals. I remember every day for two weeks my mom met me in the lunchroom at school and sat at the table with my friends and me just to make sure we were on the right path. Everyone around me had to get educated about this, because these are people that are part of my life and everyone was asking, “How can I help you?” I think after the initial panic sets in, you [need to] educate your child. I’m not suggesting that you’re not going to have bad days, but education requires you to be proactive, to learn cause and affect. You have to understand that if you have half of a cookie, that’s OK every now and then but you can’t do it every day because of what it will do to your blood sugar. Diabetes is a disease where you have you say “no” a lot more than you have to say “yes.” You learn to make adjustments.

Have you ever had a low blood sugar on the golf course?

I was trained to be aware of what it felt like when my blood sugar got really low or when it got really high. When my blood sugar goes low, I feel it in my lips and my tongue and then I’ll start to feel it in my hands. And when you’re trying to hold a golf club with shaky hands and trying make a putt, you have major league issues.

I always have either fruit or three kinds of snack bars with me (Nut Natural, Pria, and a Power Crunch Bar)-whatever will travel well in my golf bag. If I feel a low blood sugar coming on, I’ll have a Pria or Power Crunch. I can usually stop a really low blood sugar before it starts because I can feel it. But every now and then, yeah, I miss it.

What happened when you missed it?

Fifteen years ago in a tournament in Houston (American Junior Golf Association), I woke up at the hotel and my blood sugar was really low. I was still taking shots at this point (Kuehne switched to a pump in 1998). My brothers were trying to assist and I started talking to them in half-English and half-Spanish. They walked me through the hotel lobby to get some food and I had one shoe on and the other shoe in my hand. We walked into this restaurant and I had one contact lens in because I just wasn’t able to get the other one in. I was a disaster on that tournament day. I look at it now and laugh.  Now my brother Hank says when my blood sugar gets low, I start speaking Spanish. I don’t know why and I do know a few words. He says, “When she starts talking foreign languages, that’s the sign that she needs food.”

Why did you move from injections to the pump?

Tina Bonci, was the co-director of Athletic Training at the University of Texas where I went to school, is the reason. She was on the insulin pump and she educated me tremendously and she said, “Hey, I want to show you this” and I was like “no thanks, I’ve got everything under control.” I was an 18-year old kid, a golfer, and I was smart. But she helped me have a much better understanding of the disease. There have been times we have plans to have a meal together and I’ll show up at her house and she says, “I’m sorry but I had to eat because my blood sugar was low” and we laugh about it because we understand when your blood sugar is low, you can’t wait 30 minutes. You need food, like now. My A1c is 6.4. The pump makes it convenient for me because, for example, if my blood sugar is 150 and I want it to be 110, I just hit a button and Humalog is put into my bloodstream.

She gave me a book – When I Turned Pro… and there was a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that I found helpful:

 “That which you persist in doing, becomes easier,

  not that the nature of the task has changed but that

  your ability to do so has increased.

Using the Animas pump made a dramatic change in my life just because of my schedule. On the days I tee off at 7AM, breakfast is the biggest meal (two egg whites, pancakes or whole wheat pancakes) because I need more carbs in the morning. I know this because my blood sugar runs low in the morning and I need more insulin later in the day.  I do make an effort to eat brown flour and brown rice because my blood sugar doesn’t spike as much. I eat a lot of salads and I aim for 40% protein, 30% carbs and 30% fat. You have to know what works best for you.

Do you have moments when you wonder “Why Me?”

There’s no known cause for diabetes and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. I honestly believe I have diabetes because God knew I was strong enough to deal with it. He picked me because he thought I could make a difference and I was tough enough to deal with it. I go to schools and talk to kids about it and I stress that they have to take an active role. But I also tell parents it’s their responsibility, too, to be proactive. The more you know, the better you can teach them.

I don’t think there’s an excuse for not trying or not being proactive about it. It’s a strain to be around any kind of “poor pitiful me” kind of thinking. At the end of the day, you live the life you imagine or you let somebody else do it. Put me in coach, I want to live. Sure, there are bad days; days when blood sugar levels give me hell, but if you always have success, you never learn anything.

Obviously, you don’t hide the fact you have diabetes.

That’s right. If I’m out to dinner with friends, I check blood glucose at the table in front of people. Look, this is the hand I’m dealt and I’m playing the hand. Now, if there’s someone that thinks less of me as a result of doing this, that’s not my problem. I can hook my pump on my bra and, yes, sometimes my boobs light up when it’s operating and my friends giggle but I’m not sorry about this. Some guys wear the pump on their belt and it looks like a pager. It’s part of managing the disease.

How about Dairy Queen?

Guilty. I treat myself to an M&M Blizzard now and then.


Kelli Kuehne: How A Family Should Handle Diabetes…

  • Don’t let the person with diabetes feel isolated.
  • Understand that you and your family member with diabetes won’t figure out how to have good control in just one day. Everyone needs to be able to change a lifestyle but it also doesn’t mean you can never have a favorite pasta dish ever again.
  • If you are willing to adjust and be patient enough to learn about it, you are going to be fine.
  • The patient-and you-need to understand this isn’t like the person with diabetes can’t walk or never talk again. It’s diabetes and it’s something that’s manageable. I think that’s where a lot of people pull out the I Can’t Do it Because I have diabetes card. You know what? That’s a lame excuse.

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