By day Jeff Hitchcock is a technology guru working for a digital media company. During his off hours, he¹s the editor and Webmaster for a Web site that he created as a labor of love.
The site's not just any old self-built home page – it's childrenwithdiabetes.com, one of the most comprehensive diabetes-related sites on the Internet.
"Diabetes is as much about information as it is about insulin," Hitchcock says. "People living with diabetes are eager to learn as much as they can about it, and about the research underway to find a cure."
Hitchcock knows plenty about diabetes. His 12-year-old daughter, Marissa, was diagnosed with diabetes when she was 24 months old. Providing medical care for a toddler, as any parent knows, is difficult. They can't always communicate with you. With Marissa, it was often a challenge.
"We often wondered if she was experiencing (low blood sugar) or just having a 'terrible twos' tantrum," Hitchcock says. "The only way to know is to check the blood sugar, so we tested her quite often. Overall, families make diabetes part of their routine. You have to. Life continues on, and you must learn to fit diabetes into your life to give your child as normal a life as possible. There simply is no other choice."
It's still is challenge for Hitchcock and his family. Marissa experiences dangerous middle-of-the-night blood-sugar lows. An insulin pump, following dietary regulations and frequent blood-sugar monitoring are parts of daily life.
The same goes for Renee Bernett's 17-year-old daughter, Melissa. "Even a simple suburban rite of passage (playing in a girls' softball league) was tainted by the specter of diabetes, as I anxiously chased after Melissa in-between innings, imploring her to eat another bite of her sandwich, because she hadn't eaten enough carbohydrates yet to balance her insulin intake," Bernett says. "She was mortified, and I was mollified by believing that whatever extremes I'd gone to would protect her from the ravages of this insidious disease."
Bernett, too, is driven by learning and sharing information (and lending support to others) about "this insidious disease," doing much of it through the Internet. "I find that focusing on negativity saps me of psychic and emotional energy that could be better channeled into doing all that I can today to ameliorate the lives of those who live with diabetes, so that they avoid joining the ranks of those who died from diabetes," the former high-school teacher says. "As I tell my daughter, when the day comes that diabetes is cured, we want her not only to be healthy enough to benefit from it, but also to feel pride in having been a part of the efforts to achieve it."
The Bernett and Hitchcock families are far from alone. About 20.8 million people, or about 7 percent of the population, have diabetes. About 14.6 million people have been diagnosed, and it's estimated that 6.2 million are undiagnosed.
Diabetes is a disease in which the body doesn¹t produce or properly use insulin, the hormone needed to convert sugar, starches and other foods into energy. Hitchcock uses a colorful analogy to describe the disease. "Imagine that you drove a car without any kind of fuel gauge," he says. "When filling up, the hose would never stop if it were too full, and when driving, you'd never know when you were about to run out of gas. Furthermore, your fuel consumption varied greatly from day to day, so you couldn't just watch the odometer. The only thing you could do was stop the car, turn off the engine and measure the remaining fuel with a stick. That is life with diabetes."
Diabetes is manageable through tight control of blood sugar, keeping levels in the normal range as often as possible by regulating diets, physical activities and insulin dosage.
Today's recommended diets for diabetics are in synch with dietary guidelines for all Americans, perhaps surprisingly, because they've changed in recent years, says dietary expert Hope Warshaw, author of Diabetes Meal Planning Made Easy and The American Diabetes Association¹s Guide to Healthy Restaurant Eating, two books published by the ADA.
"In a nutshell, the guidelines encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables; eat more whole grains; eat less fats, particularly saturated fat; eat less sugars and sweets; and drink alcohol in moderation," Warshaw says.
Untreated diabetes can lead to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke, blindness, kidney problems, nerve and circulatory trouble, amputation and gum disease. But it doesn't mean diabetics can¹t live so-called normal lives.
"Life is never as easy as it is for people without diabetes, but diabetes does not prevent people from doing anything," Hitchcock says. "Diabetes is a challenge, but it need not stop you from pursuing your dreams."
There are two types of diabetes, one that occurs in children and young adults and another that generally appears in people over the age of 45, often overweight, with a family history of diabetes. In addition, minorities, especially Hispanics, Native Americans and African-Americans, have a higher incidence of diabetes.
Warning Signs and Causes
An increased and excessive thirst and frequent urination are key diabetes warning signs. Unexplained weight loss, blurred vision and persistent fatigue are others.
The cause of diabetes is a mystery. Experts believe genetics could play an important role. Regardless, there is no cure for diabetes.
"For several decades, scientists have thought that a cure would be found in 10 years," says Hitchcock. "We heard that in 1989, the year our daughter was diagnosed. Others heard it in 1979 and 1969. Type 1 diabetes, the kind kids get, has proven to be very complex and challenging. Insulin is not a cure, but science is closer to finding a cure today than it has ever been. While it's frustrating that there is no cure today, I remain optimistic that a cure will be found."