Family Matters: Warning signs you can’t afford to miss

Published on Wednesday, 2 November 2016 16:46 - Written by

People who have been reading this column already know I have 12 children. What most of them don’t realize, however, is that three of my children have Type I diabetes.

Since November is National Diabetes Awareness Month, and because early warning signs are often easy to miss, I thought now would be a good time to share our story.

Our first son was diagnosed with Type I diabetes shortly before his second birthday. He had been sick for nearly a month, but because he was so young and we had no family history of diabetes, it was weeks before anyone bothered to check his blood sugar.

By the time the diagnosis was made, our baby was so weak and dehydrated that it took a week at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas to get him stabilized.

We are fortunate he even survived. Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S. One study suggests that nearly a third of people who’ve died from diabetic ketoacidosis (a condition brought on by severe insulin deficiency) didn’t even know they had diabetes until it was too late.

It’s important to recognize the signs. Classic symptoms of diabetes include constant thirst, excessive hunger, frequent urination and sudden weight loss. In the case of our firstborn, these signs were easy to spot. Before he got sick, he’d ask for a sip of water at bedtime and would wake up mostly dry in the morning. Once his insulin-producing cells shut down, he’d drink six full cups of water at a time and still beg for more.

By morning, not only would his diaper be drenched, but his pajamas, sheets and mattress pads would be sopping as well. Even lining the crib with bath towels and switching his soaked diapers for dry ones several times a night didn’t help. Something was obviously wrong. When another of our sons was diagnosed with Type I two decades later, the warning signs were subtler. He was 13, so the fact he was hungry all the time seemed normal. He spent lots of time playing outdoors in the heat of summer, so it seemed reasonable for him to be drinking more, too.

We mistook his weight loss for a sudden growth spurt. And since most teenagers don’t notify their parents every time they need to use the restroom, we didn’t realize there was a problem in that department until we were stuck in the car with him for an extended road trip and he requested bathroom breaks every 20 minutes.

After eight hours of that, we used brother’s glucometer to check his blood sugar and confirmed our suspicions. The third of our diabetic children was diagnosed at age 6. We caught it early, after he asked to get a drink from the water fountain during church one Sunday and panicked when his dad told him to wait until the service was over.

The look of desperation in his eyes after that and a second, similar request prompted us to check his blood sugar, which revealed that he, too, had Type I diabetes. Type I diabetes occurs when the body attacks and kills off the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. This is different than the much more prevalent Type 2 diabetes, in which the pancreas still makes insulin, but the cells are resistant to it.

While Type 2 can often be managed with diet and exercise, there is no known cure for Type I diabetes.

Jennifer Flanders is grateful for all the wonderful medical advancements that make it possible for Type 1 diabetics to live active, healthy lives. She is also thankful for the wonderful support her family receives through the Tyler Type One community (for more information, visit www.tylertypeone.org ).