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Coping with Juvenile Diabetes

Foundation Searches for Cure

Brian Gavagan was a 15-year-old, multi-sport athlete. So when he began feeling lethargic and was losing weight, his family took him to the doctor. After three or four visits, doctors were able to pinpoint what was happening. Brian had juvenile diabetes, even though there had been no family history of the disease.

"He was a healthy kid. He played sports. We didn't have diabetes in the family, so it wasn't something the doctors were looking for," said Great Falls resident Mimi Gavagan, Brian's mom. "It was a shock and a learning experience. We knew nothing about diabetes and didn't even know where to start."

For the past 10 years, spontaneity has not been a part of Brian's life. Having juvenile, or type 1, diabetes has meant Brian, now 25 and a college graduate living in Connecticut, has had to plan every meal, carry food and insulin every time he leaves his house, monitor his amount of exercise or stress levels and correlate his insulin shots to all the above.

"People without diabetes will automatically produce the correct amount of insulin needed to keep their blood sugar in balance. People with diabetes don't produce any insulin, so they must figure out the amount of insulin to take based on what they will be eating, as well as the amount of exercise and stress they will likely experience over the next several hours," Gavagan said, "After taking the insulin, if the amount of food eaten is more than planned, the blood-sugar level will be too high and this leads to complications such as heart and kidney disease and blindness. If the amount of food eaten is less than planned or if the person is under an unusual amount of stress, the blood sugar can drop too low and additional sugar must be eaten to prevent the onset of a coma or even death. So, it's a constant balancing act to try to keep the blood sugar in a somewhat normal range."

Even so, Gavagan said her son had a normal teen-ager life, albeit without sweets and sleeping late Saturday mornings because he would have to get up to take his insulin shot. He continued to play sports through high school and in recreational leagues in college.

"He never felt sorry for himself and never said, 'Why me?'" Gavagan said.

TYPE 1 DIABETES, more commonly known as juvenile diabetes, is a chronic condition in which the pancreas doesn't make enough insulin, therefore the body cannot use blood glucose, or sugar, effectively for energy. According to MedicineNet.com, Type 1 diabetes tends to occur in childhood, adolescence or early adulthood, but can appear at any age. Type 1 diabetes requires the injection of insulin, as well as a diet plan, daily exercise and blood-glucose testing several time a day. Symptoms can include great thirst, hunger, a need to urinate often and the loss of weight. More than one million Americans have type 1 diabetes and at present there is no cure for juvenile diabetes.

By contrast, Type 2, or adult-onset, diabetes does not require insulin injections and can be treated with diet, exercise and if needed oral drugs. Both can cause complications, some of which can be fatal.

"Diabetes can be controlled with insulin injections, but that person is not cured. There are many complications from diabetes," Gavagan said. "If we could wipe out diabetes, we could wipe out the complications."

Among the complications are kidney failure, blindness, nerve damage, amputations, heart attack and stroke.

When Brian was diagnosed, the Gavagan family received information and support from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, which since 1970 when it was founded by parents of children with juvenile diabetes, has awarded more than $600 million to diabetes research, including $115 million in FY 2001.

The Gavagan family has since become active volunteers of the foundation with husband George Gavagan, at times serving on the board, and Mimi Gavagan co-chairing various fund-raising events, including this year's gala.

THE FOUNDATION'S Capitol Chapter is bringing back the "A Night of Hope" gala, to be held at the Four Seasons in Georgetown Nov. 1. The inaugural gala last year raised more than $500,000. The gala's theme is, "A Taste of Canada" in recognition of Dr. James Shapiro's "Edmonton Protocol" project at the University of Alberta in Canada, which has seen success by transplanting insulin-producing islets into diabetic patients.

"There are about 70 people who seem to have been cured of type 1 diabetes with the Edmonton Protocol, but they have to go on steroids," said Pam Gatz, executive director of the Capitol Chapter. "I've talked to many people who have said they would rather take steroids then doing the blood-glucose testing and insulin shots several times a day."

Gatz said the Edmonton Protocol is only one of the many research projects the foundation supports. She said the organization provides more money for diabetes research, second only to the United States government, than any other organization internationally.

"There is no rhyme or reason when or why someone gets diabetes," said Gatz. "It's controllable, but the person's life-expectancy shortens by 20 years. Unfortunately when you have it, you have it for life. It's not a good disease."