(Note: Rachel Hemond, an 18-year-old from Acton, MA with Type 1 diabetes, spent five months in the Vermont wilderness, managing her blood sugar using the Omnipod System and with the support from a network of doctors, family, and friends. This is the second of a 10-part series of blogs Rachel wrote about her experiences.)
Since doing a Kroka summer program just after my diagnosis with diabetes, the idea of a Semester-long program with Kroka lodged itself in my mind. After completing the two-week summer program and thriving despite my diabetes, the adventure of a five-month winter expedition seemed daunting yet also appealed to my thirst for challenge.
There was just one problem. In my mind, there was no way that I could ever get out of high school for an entire semester. I had my sights set high, filling my schedule with honors classes and AP exams and a good college so that I could one day pursue a career as a doctor. How could I possibly justify abandoning school for five months to go live in the woods? Moreover, how could I convince my school to let me? But worse than all those logistical questions was that, in the back of my mind, there was a voice whispering that being a Type 1 diabetic in extreme winter conditions would make such an adventure impossible.
For a long time I listened to those doubts and never seriously considered the semester program. Instead, I simply returned to Kroka for one more year as a student, this time using the Omnipod System, which made a significant difference in my performance. My teachers, some of whom had seen my entire transition to diabetic life, noticed.
I didn’t go low in the middle of our long hikes because I created a basal program tailored to my activity. If I knew we were in for an especially intense day, I could set a temp basal, ensuring that I would run a little above my 100-120 target for a few hours. No more calculators and Post-it notes to lose and leave littered in every camp, since everything I needed was contained within my PDM device (or Personal Diabetes Manager.)
I didn’t have to rattle around with a sharps container for my discarded needles. This might seem like a small detail – nothing as important as keeping my blood sugars in control – but there is something so disheartening about feeling like a walking biohazard and expecting guys with hazmat suits to drop in on you every time you forget to close it properly. I was free, free to experience the trip without fear or nagging in the back of my mind.
The next two summers found me working as an apprentice at Kroka – a sort of teacher in training. This exposed me to something I’d never expected: questions about diabetes from my students.
For me, testing my blood sugars and changing my Pod site and using my PDM were second nature. To them, it seemed foreign, confusing, and a little frightening. I found myself bombarded with questions, especially from the younger students: What are you doing? What’s wrong with you? Why? How does it work? And of course, the innocent yet always somewhat uncomfortable, if you’re diabetic, why aren’t you fat? Or, did you just eat too much sugar when you were little?
Somehow I’d forgotten that when I was diagnosed, I had the exact same misconceptions about Type 1 diabetes, the same biases and judgments. So instead of being upset, I took the opportunity to show my students what being diabetic really means, so that when they returned to their lives they could teach others what they learned.
I decided to just be open about being diabetic, as I was at home and with my friends. I never hid myself away while testing my blood sugars or counting carbs. I had my kit (my lancet, test strips, and PDM) out on my lap during mealtimes. Since we sit in a circle, this meant everyone could see what I was doing. I made it as casual as I could; nah, testing my blood sugar doesn’t hurt. Yeah, 180 is a little high but look, this is what I do to fix it, this is what I do when I eat and yes, I can eat that.
The dialogue varied among age groups. My 11-13 year olds were more immediate with their questions while the older students, 13-15 or 15-18, would watch me for a while before deciding that I wouldn’t be offended by whatever they asked. I was rewarded by their curiosity, the casual way that they’d ask how my blood sugars were that day, and how they explained me and my insulin pump to their parents at the end of the trip.
In hindsight, these informal lectures gave me confidence to talk freely about my diabetes so that I could feel comfortable sharing my experience. That comfort would become more and more important over the coming months as I set my sights on the five-month semester program in the winter woods of Vermont.
(Next: Rachel makes her decision about the winter semester and scrambles to figure out how to make it happen.)