A Teen on a Mission
ADA's National Youth Advocate talks to Both Kids and Lawmakers
When Christian Stokes, 18, addressed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Diabetes Conference in April, he looked into a sea of people he hopes will one day become his mentors and colleagues. Chris, the American Diabetes Association's National Youth Advocate, has big plans for his future: to become an epidemiologist at the CDC. And his type 1 diabetes, diagnosed when he was just 15 months old, certainly has much to do with that career goal.
Chris, who graduated this spring from high school in Minneapolis, wants to understand how diabetes and disease in general work. He has always been curious—even as the first grader who loved the toy microscope that his parents, Brad and Heidi Stokes, gave him, and as the fifth grader who sat down and read his science book cover to cover. More recently, he sent "fan mail" to epidemiologists at the University of Minnesota, who then invited him to tour their lab.
Chris knows the inner workings of the pancreas—and the rest of the human body—far better than do most people his age. And it's not just his own illness that has prompted him to learn about medical science. His mother has lupus, and his father has a liver condition called primary sclerosing cholangitis. "I've spent a lot of my time in doctors' offices," Chris says. "No one really knows what triggers all three of our diseases. It sparked [my interest]. Why do these diseases happen? Where do they come from?"
Chris began lobbying for diabetes research, prevention, and awareness at the age of 13. Beginning with speaking engagements at ADA's Diabetes EXPO in 2005, Chris was soon lobbying members of the Minnesota state Legislature. This March, as National Youth Advocate, he joined other ADA advocates in Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Congress and their staffs, urging them to support increased funding for the CDC's Division of Diabetes Translation and the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. "I had nine Capitol Hill meetings in two days; it was really cool," Chris says. The members of Congress and staffers "listened to what I had to say and they respected it. A lot of them were supportive of what we had to say, and were very receptive."
This fall, Chris is planning to attend Augsburg College in Minneapolis, which awarded him a presidential scholarship. Chris excelled in his high school classes while competing in varsity football, wrestling, and Ultimate Frisbee. He played trumpet in the Minnesota Youth Jazz Band, as well as in school bands. Chris admits that even with the help of his continuous glucose monitor (CGM), it's hard work pursuing all of his interests while managing his diabetes. At wrestling practice, when he doesn't use the CGM, he has checked his blood glucose up to 10 times in a single session. "I have to work so much harder to compete on the level of someone without diabetes," he says. "But it makes the success that much greater. To see it pay off is so gratifying."
For Chris and his family, diabetes has meant a lifetime of hard work, tough choices, and constant support. Heidi Stokes says that her son's self-discipline comes from having had to manage diabetes beginning at a young age. Dealing with the disease, she adds, has enriched Chris's relationships. "He has empathy for others; he knows what it's like to be the odd man out, or what it's like to be sick," Stokes explains. "He appreciates [that feeling] and wants to travel and talk to others and help."
This summer, Chris is reaching out to help kids with diabetes. As National Youth Advocate, he has corresponded with children and teens who have e-mailed him. Now he'll be traveling all summer to ADA Diabetes Camps around the country to talk to them. He is also blogging on the Web pages of the ADA youth community, Planet D (excerpt, below). "We always pushed Chris to talk to other people who were diagnosed with diabetes," says Heidi Stokes. "When you're 4 and you can help somebody else, how cool is that?" Cool enough that he's still helping at 18—and never plans to stop.
The following is an excerpt from ADA National Youth Advocate Christian Stokes's blog:
Dating can be stressful for anyone, not just people with diabetes. For me, dating makes my blood sugar take a nosedive.
I call it "pretty girl syndrome." I need less insulin when I'm around a beautiful girl. Sometimes I set an alarm to remind myself to give myself insulin, in case I'm distracted and forget. Dating will affect every person differently. Remember to pay attention to your body.
Talking to my date's father always makes my blood sugar drop too. You really want to be on top of your game when you meet your date's parents. Check your blood sugar before you go up to the door. I always try to go into a date a little high and I always carry snacks with me.
One final note about dating: If you are relaxed and calm about your diabetes, your date will be too!