James Harrell: Grandfather of Aaron
James Harrell, 73, and Aaron, 8
When James Harrell's daughter voiced her suspicion that her son, Aaron, had diabetes, Harrell shrugged off the suggestion. "[I thought] she was worried because she sees me," says Harrell, who has had type 1 since he was 31. "I said, 'Melinda, don't worry about it. He doesn't have diabetes.' " Soon after, his grandson was diagnosed with type 1.
Harrell, a retired gynecologist, flew to the hospital to spend time with the then 3-year-old boy. "He was small enough where it didn't mean a whole lot to him except that his life was changing," Harrell says. So Harrell hunkered down in the playroom and helped give Aaron some semblance of normalcy while Harrell's daughter and her husband got a crash course in diabetes from the medical staff.
Because he's a nearly eight-hour drive from Aaron and his family, Harrell doesn't get to see his grandson as often as he would like. But he still gives his daughter tips on diabetes care over the phone and helps care for Aaron's diabetes during visits. He'll fill in for his daughter and her husband during the night, checking Aaron's blood glucose at midnight and 3 a.m. to make sure he doesn't dip too low.
When the pair gets together, Harrell tries to make diabetes management feel like less of a chore for his 8-year-old grandson. "When we're together, we check our blood sugar and see who has the best [number]," he says. "We have a special thing between the two of us [that] I don't have with the other grandchildren."
Harrell says his health serves as a useful warning for his grandson. "[Aaron's parents] know that the better they control his diabetes, the less chance he has of having the bad complications that I do," he says, referring to the heart attack he had that resulted in coronary bypass surgery as well as the kidney disease that prompted a kidney transplant. "Melinda is very well aware of the [potential] problems, and her goal is to keep it as controlled as possible."
But he's confident Aaron will be able to avoid the complications he developed. Back in the early '70s, when Harrell was diagnosed, glucose control was much more elusive: Checking his glucose using urine test strips was not helpful compared with today's real-time results from a blood glucose meter. Modern medical technology has boosted his control, and he's certain that today's devices, including his insulin pump, are only the beginning. "From the 1900s, when they didn't know the pancreas was involved, to 20 to 25 years later, when they had extracts of insulin, to now, with coming up with the artificial pancreas," he says, "it's just amazing what's happening with diabetes."