Opportunity knocks: diabetes teaches life lessons

Diabetes management can drain anyone. The multiple daily needle sticks, constant need to estimate carbohydrate intake and occasional hypoglycemic dizzy spells are tough to manage. These challenges may be magnified for kids with diabetes, who often find it difficult to stay on top of managing their condition while also juggling school, sports and time with friends.

Yet, 19-year-old Henry Abrams, a Cape Cod teen diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 12, says he’s grateful for its life lessons.

Henry, currently an engineering student at University of Massachusetts, credits his ability to keep his glucose levels under control to his math finesse. “I can estimate the amount of sugar in food and make the adjustments I need.”

Henry’s mother, Lysbeth Abrams, says he’s taken the diagnosis in stride from day 1, finding ample opportunities to learn from his condition, whether it be math or nutrition or task management.

Boy Scouts to the rescue

Unfortunately, a way with numbers only gets one so far where diabetes is concerned. The disease demands a tremendous amount of self-discipline and responsibility. What better teacher than the organization whose motto is “Be Prepared?”

Henry participated in Boy Scouts of America from first grade and reached the Eagle Scout level before high school graduation. The six-year Eagle Scout process required extensive service and leadership activities and many overnight backpacking and canoeing trips.

Whether he was winter camping in New Hampshire’s White Mountains or paddling on weeklong canoe trips in the Maine wilderness, Henry managed his blood testing and insulin injections and kept his glucose meter warm, dry and operational. “I have no idea how he kept his insulin pump dry in conditions where all of my belongings ended up soaked,” says Russell Brown, Scoutmaster.

Lysbeth also credits Boston Children’s Hospital’s staff with helping Henry to excel. When Henry was first diagnosed, he spent a harrowing week in the intensive care unit at Boston Children’s. “I thought he was going to die,” recalls Lysbeth.

Joseph Wolfsdorf, MD, director of Boston Children’s Diabetes Program, and staff walked the family through the lifestyle changes he needed to make. No candy or eating between meals for the first few months. Food was reframed from sustenance and pleasure to numbers. Every portion was weighed and every carb was counted. The family adjusted and Henry adapted.

“Henry never makes a big deal about diabetes,” says Lysbeth. But sometimes taking it in stride can be taken too far.

In 2012, Henry’s blood pressure, which had started creeping up in 2009, had reached a new high and was approaching the cutoff for medication.

The situation was a typical experience for a teen with diabetes. Most adolescents struggle to maintain satisfactory control of the disease during the teen years. “Henry was no exception,” recalls Wolfsdorf.

Wolfsdorf explained the options to Henry: change his diet or start taking anti-hypertensive medication to lower his blood pressure. Henry responded by eating less and exercising more. Within six months, Henry lost 22 pounds, and his blood pressure and A1c, which measures average blood sugar over two to three months, dropped to healthier ranges.

“Henry deserves much of the credit for his success managing diabetes while excelling in school and in numerous extracurricular activities,” says Wolfsdorf.

But diabetes is a complex disease that requires strong family and medical support. Wolfsdorf says Henry’s parents played a major role in his good health and notes that both mom and dad accompanied Henry to every clinic visit. Mom is happy to share credit.

“The phrase it takes a village is overused but apt,” says Lysbeth, adding that Wolfsdorf and Boston Children’s Diabetes Program staff provided essential guidance and expertise to help the family cope with the diagnosis.

Meanwhile, Henry continues to adapt and keep his diabetes under control. “My biggest challenge is not overindulging in the unlimited ice cream in the dining hall,” he says.

To learn more about Boston Children’s Diabetes Program, click here.