Kamaal Washington was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he wasnine. He's thirteen now. In those four years, he's become anadvocate for diabetes and the author, with his brother Malcolm andhelp from his parents, of a diabetes educational superhero comicbook that's swept the nation beyond their wildest expectations. Butit all started when he began to be really, really thirsty.
Kamaal's family, including his six siblings, his mother Dana, andhis father Alonzo, had gone to St. Louis for the weekend of activistactivities. All the while, Kamaal was downing 42-ounce drinks backto back, but still insisting that his mouth felt full of cotton.
He was also having stomach cramps and a tingling sensation in hishands – he couldn't feel his fingers. So off to the emergency roomthey went, where his blood sugar was found to be over 700 and he wasimmediately transferred by ambulance to the children's hospital.
Kamaal: I was really scared at the time, because Ididn't know if it was a fatal process. I didn't really see the gistof it as far as what I had to do and what was really going on.
Dana: People who deal with diabetes on a dailybasis get so used to throwing out certain terms that they don'treally understand their effect on a child. I remember one of theladies saying, "This'll be something that you'll have for the restof your life, and you'll never be able to eat any more sugar." I hadto pull her aside and say hold it just a second: I want to explainthis to him in our own way so that we're not scaring him to absolutedeath.
Once Kamaal got to the hospital, we entered into a boot camp ondiabetes. There's a whole lot of information that you get in only afew days. For people who have never done any type of injection, justthe thought of giving your child a shot, the needle pricks everyday, and the need to balance the insulin amounts just right – it wasvery, very frightening, even for me as an adult. But Kamaal handledit very well.
Kamaal: I gave myself a shot in the hospital. Theyasked me if I could do it, so I overcame my fear of needles and justdid it. It was something that I'd have to do for the rest of mylife, so I just got used to it.
Dana: In all honesty, as a mother, it took a longtime for me to come to terms with the diagnosis. I went through aperiod of asking why is this happening to my child, and why is thishappening to us? Even though they said that it was nothing that Idid or didn't do, I felt that I should have noticed it sooner orthat maybe I could have done something to prevent it. That guiltjust laid there for awhile until I finally accepted that it wouldhave happened regardless.
I put on the brave face for the kids at the hospital, but I rememberthe night when they were discharging Kamaal and I knew that we wereon our own. I just broke down and asked the nurse, how am I going todo this? I don't see how I can do this because it's just too muchfor him. He's too young for this to be happening to him.
Always, as parents, you make yourself rise to the occasion and dowhatever's necessary, so it was a short-lived panic. But I did havethat panic period, as I'm sure every mother and father has, becausediabetes truly is a bombshell. I think it's very important to behonest and let people know that it's okay to panic, it's okay to beafraid, because those are the steps that you go through in order toovercome.
In helping Kamaal to come to terms with diabetes, Alonzo and I haddual roles. As the mom, I had the softer, more consoling role, andAlonzo was more matter of fact. He let Kamaal know that there arechallenges in life, but you do what you have to do. That's where hecame up with that slogan, "You are not going to let diabetesovercome you. You are going to overcome diabetes."
We stressed that Kamaal was going to be healthy because we weregoing to help him learn how to take care of himself and that thiswas not something to be afraid of. Alonzo took on that portion ofit, and I was the person to whom Kamaal could vent on days when hereally didn't want to have to deal with it.
He had to be able to get those feelings out. There were a fewtimes, especially in the beginning, where it was really frustrating,but he overcame that, and I think it had a lot to do with the waythat Alonzo approached the situation. Our goal was to make Kamaalrealize that there is nothing that he cannot do, that his life isn'trestricted by diabetes in any way. We've told him about all typesof sports figures, professionals, business people, and actors whohave had successful careers with diabetes.
Alonzo: That's the message that's promoted in thecomic book: There are ways that you can be a hero against diabetes.As an example for Kamaal, I work out every day, and there arecertain things I don't eat. And then he strives to do the samethings. As the father, I push him to overcome diabetes, to dothings, to speak out, and to be unashamed. I told him that we livein Kansas City, not Pity City. I promote what you can do, what youcan achieve, and I guess that's where the comic book came along.
Dana: When he was diagnosed, some of our other kidsthought that Kamaal had it better, because he had special this,that, and the other thing. Somehow in some of their eyes, becausethey were younger, they thought diabetes was cool because he wasgetting special treatment and he got to go to diabetes conventions.
Alonzo: That was what we were trying to do, take anegative situation and make it a positive. That's what the firstcomic book's all about. What Kamaal received in the hospital wasinformation that was really meant for me and Dana, and it was kindof a negative put-down: oh no, you've got diabetes. What we try todo is say, well, here's an opportunity to overcome this, and you canbe a winner – you can win this. That's the message that Kamaal andhis brother, Malcolm, are promoting.
Malcolm: When I visited Kamaal at the hospital, hesaid, "You know what would be a good idea? We could make a comicbook to teach kids about the symptoms of diabetes, so they wouldn'thave to go through not knowing what the disease is like I did." Wewent to Dad with our idea, and he said okay.
Kamaal: When my Dad came in, he really lifted up myspirits, and that's what I can always count on my Dad and Mom to do.They always get me doing the right thing. I just felt reallyencouraged, and that's how I came up with the comic book. If itweren't for my Dad, the comic book wouldn't exist, because he'sreally the one who inspired me to do it.
Alonzo: When they came to me with the idea, Ithought it was going to be a fleeting impulse. The idea was so goodthat I wanted them to do it, but I said, you guys be prepared if youdon't get a lot of attention for it. I didn't realize how seriousthey were about their advocacy. They wanted to write politicians,and they wanted to go to cities and talk about it. And they beganto get a lot of attention after all.
They wanted to show anger in the comic book character of Dr.Diabetes because that was what they hear from a lot of young peoplewhen they speak at diabetes camps and conventions. Kids and teenscan get burned out. Dr. Diabetes as a character represents anegative mentality and personifies all the wrong ways of handlingand managing the illness. You're mad at the world, and you don'twant to deal with it, and Dr. Diabetes embodies those feelings. Intheir third comic book, the boys are going to portray a politicianwho doesn't want to do any research and so becomes Dr. Diabetes.
Kamaal: Don't let the disease overcome you – overcomethe disease. If you don't check your blood sugar one day, get overit. Get out there and do good. When I'm speaking in front of kids,they really listen. They can really communicate with you becausethey're kids too. They can really feel what you're feeling, andunderstand exactly what you're talking about.
Dana: And they can vent. You know, sometimes it'seasier for kids to vent to their peers. Most adults are soclose-fisted and careful about anything personal, especially healthissues. People are always amazed at how well the boys openlydiscuss insecurity or the feelings that we've had as a family, andit has really helped a lot of people.
When Kamaal and Malcolm travel, on almost every occasion, we travelas a whole family. All of us are together, and everyone can see thesupport that they have. It really sends a positive message tofamilies as a whole about diabetes.
Alonzo: My goal is to see the boys take thismission and make it bigger. Sometimes I look into the future and seeKamaal as a man, meeting with heads of state about diabetes issues. I want him to be a diabetes activist who continues this message andjust gets more effective. As an activist, I know that you must finda million different ways to send the same message. And that's what Iwant them to do when they grow up, to continue what they're doingnow, but just do it better.
Kamaal: In the future, we want to do televisioncommercials to tell about diabetes and talk about our comic book,and hopefully, later on, we want to do an animated movie about ourcomic books. I'd also like to do a commercial about an insulin pump.
Malcolm: We'd like to have a cartoon that wouldreally express the message and tell a good story, one that kidswould really watch. And we're trying to raise sponsors for thetour, because the more sponsors we get, the more places we get togo.
Alonzo: Right now the boys are fundraising for theTour for a Cure and trying to get sponsors for their third comicbook. During this Tour for a Cure, we're going to publicize theirMySpace page, www.myspace.comKamaal_Malcolm, where youngdiabetics can write to them and send them emails for advice, andwhere we'll update the tour schedules. We want their MySpace page tobe a resource where a whole network of young diabetics can be theirfriends and talk about real issues.
The more money we raise, the more cities we'll go to and thequicker we'll publish the newest comic book. People who might wantto contribute to our efforts can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to theboy's MySpace page. That's where the community is going to beestablished. To join the friends list, write to the boys.
If we continue to push for the cure and make it an issue, I thinkthat a cure can be found. If we as advocates, parents, relatives ofdiabetics, and diabetics themselves force this to become an issue,things will progress. If we don't do that, if diabetes stays in thebackground with the same old same old and doesn't become apeople-generated movement, it'll be slower. It's going to takepeople like Kamaal and Malcolm, along with other families and otherpeople rising to the occasion. Even celebrities with diabetes don'tspeak out enough. It's going to take individuals that have enoughmedia savvy and enough people behind them to force the hands ofpoliticians.
Dana: I believe in working with people andpoliticians, but I also have a strong faith. I put hope, prayer, andaction, a three-fold effort, into finding a cure. I hope it will bein Kamaal's lifetime. We in the diabetes community need to supportand encourage one another and hang in there for the long haul. Nomatter what the politicians do, no matter how much of a struggle itis, there's strength in numbers. When the people rise up and make anoutcry, the politicians are forced to change, forced to step intoaction and get going. So even if you're not comfortable talking toa politician, talk about it in your church and school. Find anavenue to get the message out like the boys have.
Kamaal: Be an example. You can do the same thingsthat we're doing. You can be vocal. We're just asking the diabetescommunity to do the same.
Grade: Middle School
Last A1c: 7.3 percent
Daily Basal Insulin: 17.65 units
Basal Rate: .7 to .75 units
Favorite Exercise: Martial arts
MySpace Page: www.myspace.comKamaal_Malcolm