Recently I picked up my fourth-grader from school, and she said to me, "Mom, the science teacher was talking about diabetes today. She said we have to take care of ourselves so that we don't get it, because it's a terrible disease that can make you lose a leg. My friend Izzy looked at me with big eyes, and she said, 'Katie, your mom has that!'"
Both my children have always known that I have type 1 diabetes. I have not emphasized the grimmer aspects of the disease, but rather focused on Mom's need to eat well, exercise, and take her medicine. Katie has seen me test my blood, give myself injections, and change my pump set. She has also heard conversations about how many carbs are in certain foods, what Mom has to remember to bring when we travel, and whether or not the hotel has a refrigerator in the room. My husband and I have strived to remain positive without denying the seriousness of the disease.
Still, the incident in my daughter's class disturbed me. I wanted to make sure that Katie's classmates understood what it really means to have diabetes. I went to the science teacher the next day, and told her that I had heard about the diabetes discussion. Did she know that I have diabetes? No, she didn't. Would she like me to come in and talk to the kids about living with my kind of diabetes? Yes, she would.
I also mentioned the story to the mother of one of Katie's classmates. Her husband works at a pharmaceutical company that has developed new drugs approved for treating diabetes. He asked a drug developer to talk to the class about the process of scientific discovery, and about type 2 diabetes in particular.
I came in the following week. I talked about blood tests and wearing an insulin pump. I told the students about how I was diagnosed when I was 29 and all the weird symptoms I was experiencing. The class, typically pretty rambunctious, listened quietly and with fascination. When I said I was going to perform a blood test on someone else in the room, half the kids in the class raised their hands to volunteer! I chose my daughter, since, as I told the kids, I had her mother's permission.
After hearing from me—a fairly typical person with type 1 diabetes—and hearing from a scientific expert, the class got a complete picture of something they had formerly known to just be a "terrible disease that can make you lose a leg."
Just telling kids about the grim consequences of diabetes is not enough. They need a more complete picture. From meeting us, Katie's classmates learned more about what diabetes is really like. And that although it is a terrible disease, with vigilance and good medical care, people with diabetes can live full lives.
Elizabeth Vincent is a freelance editor living in Chapel Hill, N.C., with her husband and two children. She was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1989.