Am I alone?
My younger patients seem to feel that way, just as I did as a child with diabetes.
I felt as if I was the only person with diabetes. On my mind were questions like: How can this happen to me? What did I do wrong? Why am I the only one who takes shots? Isolation is a significant factor for any young person dealing with a chronic illness.
Thankfully, my mother had an answer. At the age of 8, I was enrolled for a two-week session at the Joslin Diabetes Camp. This camp was designed to help children with diabetes to learn to live with their disease, to take ownership of their lives and to demonstrate that we were not alone.
But the idea of camp left me mortified! How could my mother and father possibly force me to go to this camp — how boring it would be. I felt as if I were enrolled in summer school. Well, with mild protest, I traveled south to Charlton, Mass., to begin my two brutally long weeks at a diabetes camp.
After the five-hour drive, we carried my trunk and supplies down to my cabin. The campus was beautiful. There were numerous cabins along a lake, about eight campers to each cabin and at least three staff members. There was a large pavilion for hockey and basketball, numerous soccer fields, a beach, boathouse, infirmary, mess hall and even a radio station. After checking in, unpacking and saying good-bye, my parents left.
Was I bored? No. I can honestly say those two weeks were absolutely amazing. Each day was spent with various kids and staff members with very similar experiences and most of us took shots. What an amazing feeling to be surrounded by so many people with diabetes that understood living with an illness — clearly, I was not alone.
I spent the majority of my time playing sports, swimming, boating, hiking and playing other fun and crazy games. Our blood sugars and medications were monitored by a cabin nurse and camp doctor, and all of the staff had training in diabetes care. Each field had a supply shack with sporting goods and emergent supplies. The staff members came from all areas, ages and expertise, so improving skills with various activities was simple.
PLAY TO LEARN
Aside from the many activities, there was a significant amount of education. I participated in games and discussions designed to teach me about my diabetes. The physicians and nurses were always available to discuss any health-related topic. Our meals were guided by a registered dietician, and we measured and weighed all of our food. At first this seemed insane, but I quickly learned that the goal of our intense measurement was to teach us how to estimate an appropriate amount of food. To this day, I can easily scoop out 15 grams of peanut butter and estimate a proper meat/cereal serving.
After my two weeks were up, it was nice to see Mom and Dad. But I wasn't terribly interested in going home. We quickly made the decision that I'd return next year. I continued as a camper for seven years and then worked as a staff member for an additional six years. I had an absolute blast working with campers and assisting them with their struggles with diabetes. I have maintained many friendships from my camp days and often miss those times. The education was incredible, and I believe that my Joslin experiences continue to guide me in my work. Aside from the Joslin, there are other camps focused on diabetes education, including Camp Carefree in the Albany area. I strongly encourage all of my patients to get involved at some level. As a camper, the experience is rewarding and strengthens your independence. As a staff member, it was clearly the best summer job I have ever had.
And no, I can emphatically say, we are not alone.
Dr. Jonathan Beach, who has lived with diabetes himself since age 4, heads the Northeast Center for Diabetes Care and Education at Urgicare of the Northeast in Plattsburgh. Send questions for this column, which runs the second Tuesday of every month, to: Features Editor, P.O. Box 459, Plattsburgh, NY 12901 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.