By: Beth Bragg
Mindy Mendenhall plays basketballthe way a bull browses a china shop.She’s all muscle and emotion underthe hoop, and she’s manic enough to launchher body across the court after loose balls.
Lindsay Behrends, a teammate ofMendenhall’s at University of AlaskaAnchorage (UAA), got in her way not long ago,and now she wears a Hannibal Lecter faceshield during practice to protect a broken nose.
A 6-foot center for the Seawolves,Mendenhall gets as good as she gives. One daythis season, she counted 22 bruises on her body.
“That’s just Mindy,” teammate and bestfriend Kamie Jo Massey said. “I hate it when Ihave to go against her in practice. She’s sostrong. She has tons of bruises from hitting intopeople, and she bruises other people.”
But if bumps and bruises are the price ofMendenhall’s reckless style of basketball, elsewherein her life the consequences of unrestrainedbehavior could be deadly.
Mendenhall, 20, is a type 1 diabetic. Herbody doesn’t produce insulin, the hormonethat regulates the use of carbohydrates.
She was diagnosed with the disease, whichcan cause heart and kidney disease, blindnessand nerve damage, when she was 10. Eversince, needles, syringes, test strips and monitoringdevices have been part of her daily life. Type1 diabetes demands a constant vigilance thatallows no timeouts, not even for basketball.
Over the course of a two-hour practice orgame, Mendenhall will dash to the sideline atleast three or four times, and sometimes adozen or more, to prick her finger with a tinyneedle to draw blood so she can test her bloodglucose level.
If it’s too low, she eats or drinks something.
If it’s too high, she gives herself a shot ofinsulin, right there in the gymnasium, game or no game. She keeps her supplies at the water cooler; watchclosely and you might see her hike up her jersey, pinch herabdomen and inject some insulin.
“You think, ‘Oh, needles, Icould never do that,’”Mendenhall said. “But thatnever bothered me at all.”
What does bother her, onthe occasions when she allowsherself to think about it, is thelong-range impact of her disease.
“I worry about dying when I’m 35,” she said.
Teammate Saved Her Life After a Dream
Diabetes is the sixth-leading cause of death in theUnited States, according to the American DiabetesAssociation. The association says more than 18 millionAmericans have the disease; of those, 5 to 10 percent havetype 1.
Besides the long-range complications, a diabetic can gointo severe hypoglycemia (low blood glucose) if her bloodsugar gets too low. That happened to Mendenhall late onenight about a year ago, and though she doesn’t remembermuch of what happened, Massey recalls it in vivid detail.
Mendenhall and Massey were roommates and slept inbunk beds, with Mendenhall on the top bunk. Masseywoke up and heard Mendenhall making noise and movingaround in her sleep, and momentarily Massey worried thather friend was in crisis. After all, Mendenhall had told herthat her worst low blood glucose reactions usually happenat night while she’s asleep.
“I decided, ‘No, she’ll be OK,’ and I went back to sleep,” Massey said. “I was sleeping and dreaming, and someone in my dream came up to me andsaid, ‘You better get up and check on Mindy.’”
Massey calls that dream divine intervention.She got up and looked at the topbunk. Mendenhall was unresponsive andshaking, as if having a seizure.
Massey ran to the bedroom where hersister, Tiffany, a nursing student at thetime, was sleeping. She woke her andtogether they ran to the refrigerator, wherean emergency shot of glucagon was storedfor just this kind of situation. While KamieJo frantically read the instructions aloud, Tiffany mixed themedicine and filled the syringe.
By now Mendenhall was thrashing pretty hard, andKamie Jo had to hold her down while Tiffany administeredthe shot.
“She was totally out of it,” Kamie Jo said. “It was really scary. Of course, Tiffany and I both started to cry afterwards.”
Star of the Show Thrives on Attention
For Mendenhall, one of the telltale signs that her bloodsugar is low is fragile emotions. She’ll cry easily, usuallyover nothing. That’s one of the signals that she should eatan energy bar or drink some juice.
The tears have nothing to do with feeling sorry for herself.Mendenhall doesn’t walk around as if a dark cloudwere following her. If anything, she’s the life of the party.
On road trips, the Seawolves rent two vehicles anddivide into two groups when they drive somewhere.Mendenhall rides in the car driven by head coach JodyHensen and takes complete control of things, whether it’schoosing a radio station or regaling everyone with stories.The other passengers are a captive audience, andMendenhall is the star of the show.
“She loves people, and she loves attention,” Masseysaid. “She loves being in a big group and making peoplelaugh. She thrives on that.”
Hensen invited players to a Halloween costume party earlier this season, and Mendenhall showed up looking like a sitcom mother straight out of the 1960s—hair curled into a flip, eyeglasses with big frames, stretch pants and a gaudy pastel blouse.
Hensen asked her what she was. “Yo momma,”Mendenhall said, without missing a beat.
Constantly Monitoring Her Readings
But Mendenhall is serious when it comes to taking careof herself. Diet—what to eat, when to eat—is a huge factorin controlling diabetes, as are the monitoring of bloodsugar levels and the intake of insulin.
She meticulously counts carbohydrates, not becauseshe’s on the Atkins diet but because not counting themcould have dire results.
She draws blood from calloused fingers several times aday so she can monitor her sugar levels.
She keeps a diary of what and when she eats, how muchand when she exercises, her insulin intake and her bloodsugar readings. Last week she was eagerly awaiting thearrival of a new testing monitor that can take in all of thatinformation and show trends that may help fine-tune hereating and injection plan.
Diabetic athletes must be particularly watchful of theirblood sugar levels while playing or working out, becausethe body burns sugar at a higher rate during exercise.
Doctors have decided that Mendenhall’s blood sugarmust be in a safe zone, neither too low nor too high for herto play or practice safely. If it is not, she takes action—byeating or drinking something with carbohydrates or byinjecting insulin. She stays on the bench until she’s back inthe accepted range.
During a recent game at Seattle University, Mendenhallwas out of the target range during warm-ups, and as thestarting lineups were announced to the crowd, theSeawolves waited anxiously for the latest monitor readingto see whether their senior center indeed would be able tostart. She was.
Mendenhall’s numbers fluctuate the most when herschedule changes. At the beginning of the season, theSeawolves practiced at 7 a.m.—a time of day whenMendenhall isn’t accustomed to eating or exercising. Shestruggled through some of those practices until finding aroutine that worked—waking up a couple of hours beforepractice so she could eat a meal, take an insulin shot andarrive on the court with her blood sugar level at a plateau.
When afternoon practices replaced morning practices,Mendenhall again adjusted her habits. Road trips complicatethings too, because meals come at different times than usual.
“It takes constant management,” Hensen said. “Shereally does a great job with it.”
A New Fit and a New Diet
Coming to UAA has turned into one of the best thingsthat’s happened to Mendenhall, who is from Springville,Utah. For one thing, she joined a church group and metJohn Lindquist, a Dimond High grad whom she marriedon August 15.
For another, people at UAA took an interest in her diabetes.That hadn’t been the case at Snow College in Idaho,where Mendenhall played as a freshman and sophomore.
“My first coach didn’t take any time to understandwhat was going on. She thought anytime practice got hard,my blood sugar was low.”
At the time, Mendenhall had an older monitoringdevice that took 45 seconds to give a reading. So her quicktrips to the water cooler to test her blood sugar always lastedat least a minute. Now she has a glucose meter that givesa reading in five seconds.
When Mendenhall arrived in Anchorage, UAA trainerChris Volk set up an appointment for her with a doctor atProvidence Alaska Medical Center. One of the first thingsthat happened was Mendenhall’s insulin regimen waschanged because the one she had been on was developedfor children with diabetes.
Volk introduced her to dietitians at Providence, andthey counseled Mendenhall on diet.
“If she had a weak link, it was probably her diet,” Volksaid. “They pushed her into being more structured.”
Though many type 1 diabetics do not go far in athleticsbecause of the need to constantly monitor sugar levelswhile exercising, there is no reason for them to avoidsports, Volk said.
Besides keeping blood glucose levels within the acceptedrange, the primary goals for a diabetic are healthy bloodpressure and lipid levels—both cholesterol and triglycerides,Volk said.
“Her lipid levels are much better than they’d be if shewere sedentary. That’s why exercise is good for diabetics,but it’s a challenge. That’s why a lot of them don’t staywith it this far.”
Mendenhall’s husband, who works for the AnchorageSchool District as a teacher’s aide, is still learning aboutdiabetes. He draws comfort from the way Mendenhalltakes care of herself and the knowledge that she’s beendealing with her disease since childhood.
Basketball, he figures, can only be a good thing, becauseit contributes to her overall health.
“I used to worry a lot, because I love her and that’s whatpeople do. But she isn’t worried about it, so why should Ibe?” Lindquist said. “A much bigger concern is how manybruises she’s gonna come home with.”
Because diabetics competing at the college level andbeyond are fairly rare, Mendenhall is something of a rolemodel for youngsters with the disease. One time last season,UAA gave the local diabetes association tickets to agame so kids with the disease could watch Mendenhall playand then meet and talk with her.
A great idea, but the postgame meeting never happened,because a medical emergency sent Mendenhall tothe training room with less than a minute left in the game.
UAA’s bull in a china shop, playing the only way sheknows how, slammed onto the hardwood while fighting fora rebound. She had a concussion.
Mindy Mendenhall’s Game Day Routine
9 a.m. I wake up. I test using my OneTouch UltraSmart meter.A typical glucose reading is around 140 mg/dl. I eat a bowl of cereal(Team Cheerios or Special K Red Berries). I administer 8 units ofHumalog insulin.
Noon I test again. If I am low I have a snack, or if I am high I take a couple units of Humalog insulin. My usual glucose reading is around 160 mg/dl.
1 p.m. Shooting practice! I test right before I start. I am usually around 130 mg/dl. We practice for an hour. I usually test once during practice. If my BG has dropped at all, I eat a granola bar (20grams of carbs).
2:30 p.m. Pre-game meal. I test before eating. A usual reading is around 200 mg/dl. I take 10 units of Humalog. I usually eat a mealconsisting of potatoes, bread, salad, chicken and a juice drink(around 90 to 100 grams of carbs).
5:30 p.m. I arrive at school for the game. I check my BG and try to have it between 140 and 200 mg/dl before I play. My BG is usuallyhigh before games (260+). I get so excited sometimes I think Imake it go higher than on other days, so I take 4 to 5 units ofHumalog before playing. The trainer keeps a bottle of juice for mein case my BG gets low. I keep my meter and my insulin at the endof the bench for constant supervision.
6:40 p.m. Twenty minutes before game time, and still opportunity to get my BG to an ideal level. I test it now and see if it is going up or down from the last time and I react accordingly. If it is stillhigh, I will take more Humalog insulin, only 2 to 3 units. If it is gettingtoo low, I will eat a granola bar or drink half of the juice there(both about 20 to 30 grams of carbs).
Halftime: I test and make sure my BG is still within the targetrange (80 to 300 mg/dl) that allows me to play in the game accordingto my doctor’s guidelines. A usual reading is around 180 mg/dl.I usually don’t do anything when I am on target.
After the game: I am usually low from either taking too muchinsulin or playing too hard. Our trainer provides us with bottles ofjuice. I will check my BG. If it is low, I can drink a whole bottle ofjuice and take no insulin.
9:30 p.m. After-game snack or meal: This varies according to howhungry I am. I will usually consume 80 to 100 grams of carbs after agame. I take 8 units of Humalog insulin.
10:22 p.m. I take my 19 units of Lantus insulin to provide mybasal insulin needs. I check my BG. A usual reading is around 170mg/dl. I am then sure my BG will be sustained through the nightand I go to sleep.