Hard Work and Determination Pay Off for Student Athlete with Diabetes

I’ll never forget the afternoon of January 22, 2003, and the phone call that came from Derek’s pediatrician. I was just leaving my classroom that day when I noticed the light on my phone lit up, alerting me to a new voicemail. My heart stopped when I listened to the message.  The doctor asked me to call him back as soon as possible.  

It all started a week before when Derek, a very healthy, active seventh grader at LaSalle Middle School, was recovering from the flu.  He appeared run down, going straight from baseball into a demanding AAU basketball schedule with very little break, and I knew something was very wrong.  He was thirsty all the time, using the restroom frequently, and he looked like he had lost weight.  So I took a urine sample in.

That day, Dr. Mark Reinertson confirmed my suspicions.  There was sugar in Derek’s urine.  Dr. Mark wanted Derek to pack a bag and go to the St. Luke’s Women and Children’s Center immediately.  After the initial shock, the first thing I asked Dr. Mark was, “Can he still play sports?”  It probably wasn’t the most logical question to ask at that moment, but I knew Derek would ask me.  Dr. Mark said, “Of course he can.  He can do anything he did before.  There are many professional athletes who have diabetes.  The key is to get it under control and keep it there.”  

That afternoon was not an easy one.  When I showed up at Derek’s locker after school, he and his friends were headed to the locker room for basketball practice.   I told him the test had shown that his blood sugar was high and that he needed to check into the hospital for a few days so that they could get it to the right levels.   He just looked at me.  And when he finally spoke, the first thing he asked was, “Can I still play sports?” 

The next four days at the St. Luke’s Women’s and Children’s Center were the longest four days of my life.  During our stay at the Center, Derek had to be tested constantly because they were trying to find the correct initial dosage of insulin.  He had to learn how to poke his fingers for glucose testing and how to administer insulin.  Nurses would wake us in the middle of the night to test his blood sugars.  We all met with the dietitian to learn about the importance of counting carbohydrates. 

When we arrived home from the Center, I told Derek that his life would not change other than that he would have to test his blood sugar before each meal and at bedtime and take his insulin.  I told him that we weren’t going to let this get in the way of his life or let it become a “big deal” or an obstacle, and that he could do anything he set his mind to.

The first few months were rough.  It took awhile to get used to the constant testing and monitoring.  Derek’s school nurse was a tremendous help to him during those first few months.  His medication included Lantus, the 24-hour insulin taken at bedtime, and Humalog taken during the day with meals.   We soon learned that he was very sensitive to insulin and so not much was needed.  He very rarely needed more than 1 unit of Humalog at each meal.  

Dr. Mark kept us up to date concerning the newest advancements in meters and insulin, and soon Derek was testing his blood sugar in his forearm and using disposable pens for his insulin, which made things much easier with his active schedule.  Dr. Mark always took a personal interest in Derek and his teams.  For an athlete with diabetes, having that kind support from your pediatrician is critical. 

Basketball season was our first practice run.  How were we going to adjust Derek’s insulin to all the activity?  How would we know if his number would fall rapidly?  How would we know if it was too high?   We learned.  Derek learned.  He was very in tune with his highs and lows, and he adjusted accordingly.  

Many teens diagnosed with diabetes think they have to change their lifestyles. Many stop participating in sports or other strenuous activity.  Many coaches shy away from athletes with diabetes because they don’t fully understand the condition. One misconception is that people with diabetes shouldn’t exercise for fear they will pass out or that their blood sugar will go low.   Nothing is further from the truth.  In Derek’s case, exercise helped keep his blood sugar within normal limits.  Testing before and after practices and games and staying in tune with his body was the key for him.  Having the support of the coaching staff is critical.

Derek continued to run track and play football, basketball, and baseball throughout his Xavier High School career.  He never missed a practice, and Xavier is not known for their “light practices.”  Whenever he’d feel low from all the running and conditioning, he’d run over, grab his Gatorade, take a few swigs, wait a few minutes until his number went up, and then go right back out there.  He never quit.  

Derek took on a lot of responsibility himself, setting his goals high.  He was in the weight room every day, and his track coach set up training at a performance facility to help him get stronger and faster.  His growth spurt came later than most kids, but he grew into a strong 6’1″, 185-pound young man.  Xavier High School football coach Duane Schulte says, “We will be using Derek as an example at our football practices for years to come.”

Derek sustained broken bones, sprains, torn ligaments, a rotator cuff injury, hip flexor injuries, and all the typical injuries that many athletes encounter.  But he never missed a day due to diabetes.  He never allowed his diagnosis to get in the way of his goals, and he has used his diagnosis to help talk to other teen athletes about the disease and how to manage it.  

Derek’s hard work paid off for him senior year.  In addition to being named to the all-metro and all-conference teams in football, baseball, and track, he earned all-state honors in track and won three state titles, setting two new state track records. He was also selected as long-time local sports announcer Bob Brooks’ Athlete of the Week.  Alluding to Derek’s future at the University of Northern Iowa, Brooks said, “The best is yet to come.” 

With a month of college under his belt, Derek’s message to all young athletes with diabetes is the same message that Dr. Mark gave him almost six years ago:  “You can do anything you did before.”

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