GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Over the past 10 years, the number of children diagnosed with diabetes has increased. While there is no cure for the condition, the quality of life for people who have it has increased significantly alongside the advent of new technology to manage it.
“Diabetes used to be a very life-limiting, 50 years ago, a very life-limiting diagnosis. Now we’re finding patients can live a very long, healthy, very ‘normal’ life,” Dr. Emily Miller, a pediatric endocrinologist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, said.
November has been named Diabetes Awareness Month. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 23% of those with diabetes have not been diagnosed.
Diabetes is broken down into three types: Type 1, Type 2 and gestational. Type 2 is the most common form of diabetes, according to the CDC. It happens when a patient can’t process their insulin well, which means their blood sugar is poorly regulated. Gestational diabetes may develop in pregnant women who have never had diabetes. It goes away once the baby is born, but women who have it also have a greater chance of developing Type 2 later in life.
Miller explained that Type 1 is an autoimmune condition that can affect all age groups but tends to be diagnosed in childhood. Most people with Type 1 diabetes are diagnosed between the ages of 10 and 14.
“It essentially happens because a patient’s own immune system tags the part of the pancreas that makes insulin as being abnormal and attacks the pancreas, and so their bodies can’t make insulin on their own anymore,” she said.
That’s the type of diabetes 13-year-old Autumn Taylor has. She was diagnosed at 18 months old.
“It was just one of those things where she was just progressively getting sick,” Miya Taylor, Autumn’s mom, said. “She had been vaccinated so she had a little fever and I kind of thought that’s what it was attributed to. And then we started having issues with her having really soaked diapers at nighttime, her finding her way out of her crib onto the floor, her losing a lot of weight, and things were just not really adding up.”
She took Autumn to the emergency room, where she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
The symptoms Autumn had when she was 18 months old are common, Miller said.
“The classic symptoms of Type 1 diabetes are excessive thirst and excessive urination, especially getting up at night to drink or getting up at night to urinate,” she said. “Some other symptoms would be losing weight even though patients are often very hungry or eating more than typical, feeling really tired or draggy, or having headaches (or) blurry vision.”
In people with Type 2, Miller said the darkening of the skin in the armpits and around the neck are also common.
A hemoglobin A1C test can be administered to check for diabetes. It takes a snapshot of a patient’s blood sugar levels over the course of three months. For those who are at risk of developing diabetes or who have a parent, sibling or child with Type 1, a physician can screen for pancreatic antibodies, the markers in the immune system that attack the pancreas.
When patients are first diagnosed with diabetes, doctors start a hands-on treatment process with injections multiple times a day.
“They have to check their blood sugar before every meal, before bedtime, anytime they’re having symptoms of high and low blood sugar and then giving the insulin accordingly,” Miller said.
Miya Taylor said that was challenging when Autumn was young.
“There’s a huge learning process that you have to go through as a parent to be able to appropriately take care of somebody that small,” she said. “We had to do about seven to eight injections a day on an 18-month-old baby.”
Later on, Autumn was given an insulin pump, which is worn 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It can give patients a constant insulin drip with increases depending on what is being eaten each day.
Miller explained that another piece of technology that can help ease the daily load of diabetes management is a continuous glucose monitor.
“(It) sits in the skin and can actually check the sugar and the fluid that sits underneath the skin every five minutes. And then it gives not only what that sugar is in that moment, but what the trend has been doing. It predicts what the trend will do,” Miller said.
As Autumn has gotten older, she has been able to take over some of the responsibilities of her own care and feels the freedom associated with that.
“I don’t even think it impacts (my life) as much. I still just go on with my life and just hope for the best,” the 13-year-old said.
This summer, she went to Corewell Health’s Diabetes Youth Camp.
“It was nice to be around other kids that were like me,” Autumn said. “(The camp counselors) take care of a lot of things for you.”
After nearly 11 years of living with the condition, Autumn and her mother shared some words of advice for those who are also impacted.
“It’s definitely going to be OK. I know it’s hard to be able to take care of yourself sometimes or if you have a parent that has to do everything, but everything is definitely going to be OK,” Autumn reassured other kids. “And if anybody asks questions, it’s OK if you don’t want to talk about it. You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to… Also, your parent is right there with you to help you have any trouble with anything, like my mom did.”
Miya Taylor said it’s important for parents to stay strong and educate yourself.
“There are a lot of resources out there on the American Diabetes website (and) a lot of information that the JDRF gives as well,” she said. “Find a support system. Support systems… It was always helpful for me hearing people’s experiences, so just kind of reach out to people. Make a network of people that you can speak with and always know that you’re not alone.”