For the last few weeks, Dr. Jay Gardner's life has been dictated by a device hooked to his stomach, about the size of a pager. It's an insulin pump and a critical tool for anyone with type 1 diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes is a condition where the pancreas cannot produce insulin, a hormone that allows sugar to enter cells and produce energy.
"There’s no cure for type 1 diabetes," said Gardner. "That means when we diagnose a family, myself and our diabetes educators are talking with them, it’s with the idea that we’re telling them it’s a lifelong condition."
As a pediatric endocrinologist at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, about a third of Gardner's patients have type one diabetes. The disease requires constant management. Patients must monitor what they’re eating, constantly check blood sugar levels, and calculate their needed dosage of insulin.
That’s a responsibility that often falls on young shoulders. According to Gardner, the median age at diagnosis for type 1 diabetes is 10 years old.
Tools like insulin pumps and embedded blood sugar monitors have lessened the burden for patients and their families, but days are still filled with finger pricks and counting carbohydrates.
"The issue with diabetes is not only the burden of management, it’s what can happen to me over time if I don’t take care of myself," said Gardner.
If not properly managed, diabetes can lead to a host of serious health issues including kidney failure, eye sight issues, and even amputations.
However, while Gardner currently sports an insulin pump, he is not diabetic. Nor does his pump actually contain insulin. He’s wearing it for Lent, a period before Easter observed by many Christians with acts of sacrifice or fasting.
Gardner is spending 40 days walking in the shoes of his young patients who will live with diabetes the rest of their days. Like his patients, he constantly checks his sugar levels and restricts his diet.
One of those patients is Kenlee Graves, 8. She was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of four. Ask her about her disease, however, and she answers like an adult.
"When your sugar’s low, your stomach hurts and whenever it’s high, you’re hyper," said Graves.
She said at first, the needle pricks "freaked her out," but four years later they’ve become routine. If her friends ask about her insulin pump, she also has a pretty simple explanation.
"I tell them that my pancreas doesn’t work and I have to have medicine," Graves explained.
Despite having diabetes, Graves lives a pretty normal life. She loves to ride four-wheelers and play outside and even indulges in candy.
That’s the message Gardner said families need to understand. He said as long as they take care of the disease, any patient can go on to live a full and long life.
By wearing a pump and going through the motions of a diabetes patient, he hopes to better empathize with his patients and the struggles they may encounter. He can also give a personal perspective to patients about how wearing an insulin pump affects every day activities. Gardner regularly works out and even runs with the pump without issue.
More than anything, he wants to bring awareness to an incurable disease that affects two out of every 1,000 children.
"If you haven’t walked a mile in their shoes, you have no idea how hard it can be," said Gardner.
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