Faces of Diabetes: Rachel's story
LAKE WILSON -- Seven years ago, 9-year-old Rachel Carlson of Lake Wilson sat on a stool in front of her classmates while listening to her mom, Twyla, talk to her friends. The kids were staring at her and she was kind of embarrassed.
"Mom did most of the talking," Rachel explained recently. "She told them about shots, blood sugar and stuff like that. And she told them if I looked shaky or started acting weird they were to tell the teacher and get the school nurse right away."
Rachel had been diagnosed with Type I diabetes, and her parents had decided it was best to enlist her classmates in keeping an eye on her.
"We thought the more people that knew, the better off we would be," Twyla explained. "It was kind of weird. The kids weren't 'Wow!' They were 'Oh, OK.'"
Type I diabetes is usually diagnosed in children and young adults and was previously known as juvenile diabetes. With Type I diabetes, the body does not produce insulin, a hormone that is needed to convert sugar (glucose), starches and other food into energy needed for daily life. Unquenchable thirst, fatigue and weight loss are a few of the more common symptoms of diabetes.
Now a junior at Murray County Central (MCC) High School, Rachel remembers a time in third grade when she was thirsty -- so thirsty that her teacher had starting to get impatient with a little girl who needed a drink of water every 10 minutes during class.
"Finally, Mom said we better get it checked out, so we went to the doctor," Rachel said.
From the doctor's office, Rachel was sent straight to the hospital. Doctors tried to explain diabetes to her, but Rachel said she didn't think much about it.
"Here was my mom and dad trying to take this all in, and I was just sitting there thinking, 'Whatever,'" she said with a laugh. "They gave me a little fake shot thing, and I thought, 'This is cool.' It didn't occur to me I'd have to do it to myself."
Her parents, she said, were very concerned about their youngest daughter and sad that she would have to deal with diabetes for the rest of her life, but Rachel said she wasn't worried.
"I was invincible!" she laughed. "I was nine."
Twyla said learning her daughter had diabetes was mind boggling.
"We had a basic knowledge of what diabetes was, but found out we really didn't know anything," Twyla recalled.
While Rachel was in the hospital, her parents received a crash course in diabetes, taking in as much information each day as they could process.
"I didn't know where to start with some of this stuff," Twyla said. "It seemed like an all or nothing deal. And we had to watch everything she ate. She wasn't old enough to do this herself. We had to do it for her."
Twyla's approach seemed simple enough.
"If that's what Rachel is eating, that's what we're all eating."
It sounded like it should work, Twyla decided.
"It didn't," she said with a laugh. "I figured if Rachel got a cup of this, we all got a cup of this. Pretty soon my husband was like, 'I'm starving!'"
Rachel said it seemed like no big deal to be diabetic at first, but it was little things that began to bother her.
"Birthday treats!" she stated with a roll of her eyes. "Pop, cookies, candy -- other kids brought it and I couldn't have it. It was not fun."
From being mostly complacent about her diabetes as a 9-year-old, Rachel said it caught up with her a few years later when she realized this was forever.
"One day I just went in my room and slammed the door and yelled, 'Why me?'" she said.
Eventually Rachel learned how to calculate her insulin so that she could have an occasional treat, but she also realized she felt better if she didn't. She started attending summer camp for kids with diabetes the same year she was diagnosed. It was comforting, she said, to be surrounded by people who lived with the same issues.
With her parents checking up on her to make sure she had tested her blood, taken her insulin and eaten on schedule, living with diabetes eventually became second nature.
Now I can't imagine not being diabetec," she admitted.
Rachel hasn't let diabetes slow her down, and leads the same busy life as most teenagers. When asked about school activities she paused before starting the list.
"Track, drama, choir, band, student council...," she listed, then her eyes lit up. "And I just found out I made National Honor Society!"
These days, she spends her afternoons and evenings at play rehearsals, practicing for the role of Belle in "Beauty and the Beast." She is also involved in Luther League, plays piano and is a member of the Rebel Voices, a specialty choir at MCC.
Routine is an important aspect, Rachel said, of managing diabetes. Sometimes her blood sugar will go high or low for reasons that can't be explained, but she just deals with it as it comes. As a child her routine was strict, but now she said she doesn't have to eat at precisely the same time every morning and she has a little more freedom.
"You just have to be aware of it and do a little pre-planning," she said.
At first, Rachel said she needed two shots of insulin a day. That later switched to four shots, then to an insulin pump. She had the pump, which she called her "electronic pancreas" for three years, but recently want back to shots.
Having diabetes has made her health conscious, and rather than reaching for pop, she tends to keep a bottle of water close by.
"We've said for years that Rachel is probably the healthiest one of us all," Twyla admitted. "She's the most health conscious."
Rachel is never without her glucose tablets or her cell phone, and her friends are used to being handed one or another by now when she prepares to run a race in track or step on stage.
"Hold this," she'll say, and off she goes. Every now and then, her friends eye the glucose tabs, which she describes as giant Smartees, with an hungry eye and tease her about eating them all while she's not looking, but they are all used to her habits. Sometimes, she said, she'll meet someone who has questions, but she generally tells them "it's not that big of a deal."
As for the future, Rachel isn't entirely sure what her plans are, but she is considering a career in the health field or becoming an educator - probably an Engish teacher, she added.
Far from feeling as though her body has betrayed her, she said she embraces her diabetes as part of who she is.
"It's not a bad thing," she insisted. "It could be, but not if you don't make it that way."