I’ll never forget the afternoon of January 22, 2003. I was just leaving my classroom when my phone lit up, alerting me to a new voicemail. My heart stopped when I listened to the message. It was my son’s pediatrician, asking 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 had appeared run down, and although he had gone straight from baseball into a demanding AAU basketball schedule with very little break, I knew that 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 in a urine sample.
That day on the phone, Dr. Mark Reinertson confirmed my suspicions. There was sugar in Derek’s urine. He wanted Derek to pack a bag and go to the St. Luke’s Women’s and Children’s Center immediately. After the initial shock, the first thing I asked him was, “Can Derek still play sports?” It probably wasn’t the most logical question to ask at that moment, but I knew that Derek would ask me that same question. 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 heading for basketball practice. I told him that the test had shown that his blood sugar was high and that he needed to check into the hospital for a few days in order to get it to the right levels. He just looked at me. 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 of my life. During our stay, Derek had to be tested constantly in order 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 woke 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 returned home from the Center, I told Derek that except for the fact that he would be testing his blood sugar and taking insulin, his life would not change. I told him that we weren’t going to let this get in the way of his life or become a “big deal” or an obstacle, and I emphasized that he could still do anything he set his mind to.
The first few months were rough. It took a while to get used to the constant testing and monitoring. Derek’s medication included Lantus, the 24-hour insulin taken at bedtime, and Humalog, taken during the day with meals. We soon learned that Derek was very sensitive to insulin. He rarely needed more than 1 unit of Humalog at each meal.
Derek’s school nurse was a tremendous help to him during those first few months, and Dr. Mark kept us up to date concerning the newest advancements in meters and insulin. 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. Having that kind support from your pediatrician is critical, especially for an athlete with diabetes.
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? But we learned, and Derek learned. He was very in tune with his highs and lows, and he adjusted accordingly.
Many teens diagnosed with diabetes think that 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 that they will pass out or their blood sugars will go low. Nothing is further from the truth. In fact, exercise helped keep Derek’s blood sugars 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 was 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 some swigs, wait a few minutes until his number went up, and go right back out there. He never quit.
Derek took a lot of responsibility upon himself and set his goals high. He was in the weight room every day. His track coach even set up training for him 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, torn ligaments, a rotator cuff injury, hip flexor injuries, sprains, and all the typical injuries that many athletes encounter. But he never missed a day due to diabetes, and he never allowed his diagnosis to get in the way of his goals.
Derek’s hard work paid off 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.”
In the past, Derek has talked to other teen athletes about diabetes and how to manage it. Now, with a month of college under his belt, his message to young athletes with diabetes is the same one Dr. Mark gave him almost six years ago: “You can do anything you did before.”