Diabetes won't stop active South Elgin teen
This seemingly cryptic text message likely means nothing to most people, but everything to 14-year-old Tess Anderson, who's been known to send it to friends who, like her, suffer from Type 1 diabetes. The number refers to the threshold for critically high blood glucose, or sugar, levels.
Being able to share her experiences with friends is a tremendous help in dealing with the daily challenges of her chronic disease, the South Elgin teen said.
"I can talk to my mom about stuff to do with diabetes, but she doesn't get what I am going through because she hasn't lived through it," she said. "And even if she was diagnosed, she is not going to understand what I am going through because I'm a teenager. Everything is different when you're a teenager."
A dedicated advocate for diabetes research and awareness, Tess is preparing for a 40-mile bike ride, part of the annual Chicagoland Tour de Cure, a fundraising event for the American Diabetes Association June 14 in Aurora.
Tess, who just finished her freshman year at Westminster Christian Academy, has participated in the Tour every year since being diagnosed at age 8, the first time on the back of her mother's tandem bike. "Team Tess" has about 30 riders, with "red riders" who suffer from diabetes like Tess sporting red jerseys. Her whole family takes part, including parents Anne Marie and Gregory (who own Spin Doctor Cyclewerks bike shop in Bartlett), brother Noah, 17, and sister Emma, 19.
The fundraiser also helps families pay for their kids with diabetes to go to summer camp, which is where Tess met many friends who have become an invaluable network of support. "When you go there (to camp), you just feel like you're in the right place," she said. "You can talk to anybody about stuff. You don't feel as alone in this disease as you did before."
Having that support is crucial, Anne Marie Anderson said. "I'll be the one to tell her to text her friends. They really understand."
People with Type 1 diabetes, and their families, face a host of emotional and financial issues, along with the common misconception that lifestyle changes like exercise and nutrition are all that's needed to get better, Anne Marie said. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, unlike Type 2 diabetes, which most often develops in middle-aged and older people who are overweight and inactive.
"We deal with this all the time, and it's very frustrating," Anne Marie said. "I wish people had a better understanding of the difference between Type 1 and Type 2, and even the causes."
Tess gets a continuous drip of insulin through a pump she wears at all times, along with a sensor on her arm that monitors blood sugar levels. The wireless sensor is connected to a receiver Tess carries at all times, and also to her mother's cellphone, both of which will sound an alarm if the levels get too low. She also has to test her own blood up to 13 times per day.
So does all this get tiresome?
"It's an annoying disease but it doesn't stop you from doing what you want," she said. "I still do everything I want to do, I just have to take care of myself a little better than some people, and I have to have it on my mind more than others. I'm still a kid but it has made me grow up a little faster and become more responsible than others my age."
Diabetes hasn't stopped Tess from being active and enjoying sports. She's on her school's basketball and soccer teams, and on a cyclocross team run by her father. She's also a black belt in karate.
"Some people don't understand that just because my pancreas doesn't work, it doesn't mean I can't do everything," Tess said. "Sometimes I have to take a break because my blood sugar is low or my blood sugar is high. For example, sometimes I'll miss practice -- I can be there but I'll have to take a break. But most of the time, I can do the same things everyone can."
Sometimes the disease acts up at the worst moments, such as earlier this year when Tess made it to the basketball state championship for three-point shooting. Her blood sugar levels dropped, which made her achy and shaky. "I didn't do too well. It was kind of upsetting," she said. "But I was extremely happy to be there. Maybe I was a little annoyed and frustrated, but it wasn't the end of the world."
This year, Tess was also diagnosed with Graves' disease, a thyroid disorder that causes symptoms such as arrhythmia, but medication has helped her control it. "It's not a big deal. It's not like I felt pain ever," she said.
Tess and her mother have lobbied in Springfield and Washington, D.C., with groups representing the American Diabetes Association. Pediatricians' offices must begin imparting blood sugar tests as a matter of course, Anne Marie said.
Tess' diagnosis followed three days of what everyone thought was the stomach flu, with symptoms such as loss of appetite, dehydration, drowsiness and fatigue -- also symptoms of diabetic ketoacidosis, a serious and possibly fatal complication of diabetes that landed Tess in a brief coma in the hospital.
Avoiding such dire consequences can be very simple, Anne Marie said. "It's just a prick on finger, all you need is a glucose meter or pee on a stick. Both of those things are not that expensive and not that hard to do -- and it could potentially save a kid's life."