Hockinson girl learns to manage Type 1 diabetes

8-year-old and her family strive to maintain a normal childhood, serious illness

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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In many ways, Allie Seekins is like any other 8-year-old.

She plays soccer. She enjoys eating cake at birthday parties. She spends summer afternoons playing with her 5-month-old puppy, Justice. She likes to cool off by swimming in the pond on her family's property in Hockinson.

But in many ways, Allie's life is much different than that of a typical third-grader.

Before playing soccer, Allie has to prick her finger for a blood test. And before she can eat a piece of cake, she has to make sure her blood-sugar levels aren't too high. And before she can jump into the pond, she has to remove the pump that delivers insulin 24 hours a day through a catheter under the skin on her back.

Three years ago, Allie was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Her life — and her parents' lives — haven't been the same since.

"The insulin is what keeps her alive, and that is so scary," said Allie's mom, Kari Seekins.

Diabetes is one of the most common chronic diseases among children and adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the U.S., about 151,000 people younger than 20 have diabetes, according to the CDC.

Diabetes is a disease affecting how one's body uses blood glucose, or blood sugar. During digestion, sugar is absorbed into the bloodstream. Normally, sugar then enters cells, with the help of insulin.

When a person eats, his or her pancreas secretes insulin into the bloodstream. A person with diabetes has too much glucose in their blood. The reason behind the excess glucose distinguishes Type 1 from Type 2 diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes is when the body's immune system destroys the beta cells in the pancreas, making the body incapable of producing insulin. So people with Type 1 diabetes must rely on insulin injections or an insulin pump.

Researchers don't know exactly what causes Type 1 diabetes but suspect it's an autoimmune disease — one's own immune system attacking healthy cells — that can happen to anybody, said Robin Hammon, a diabetes educator at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center.

Type 1 diabetes is not reversible and stays with the person for the rest of his or her life.

Every year, more than 13,000 kids are diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, according to the CDC. However, over the last two decades, more and more children are being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, which is usually diagnosed in adults over 40.

Type 2 diabetes is the result of the body's cells becoming insulin resistant, allowing sugar to remain in the bloodstream. Increasing obesity rates and sedentary lifestyles are thought to be contributing to the growing number of kids with Type 2 diabetes, according to the CDC. Diet and exercise can help to slow or stop the progression of Type 2 diabetes.

Power of the pump

For the first 21/2 years, Allie relied on insulin injections, but she grew weary of the shots. Every time she ate something with more than about 10 grams of carbohydrates, she needed an insulin shot. Some days, Allie was getting seven or eight shots.

So, about six months ago, Allie got an insulin pump. Now she can administer additional insulin with just a few taps of the buttons on her insulin pump. The pump, however, must be attached at all times.

And while the pump makes administering insulin easier, it doesn't lessen the amount of diligence needed to make sure Allie stays healthy.

Allie tests her blood sugar about five to eight times a day. Every night, Kari wakes up at least once, pricks Allie's finger and tests her blood sugars.

While Allie sleeps, she's at risk of her blood-sugar levels dropping dangerously low or spiking too high. As kids sleep, their blood-sugar levels can be affected by earlier activities, meals and blood-sugar levels, changing hormone levels and how much they're growing, Hammon said. As such, kids with Type 1 diabetes typically need to be checked between 2 and 4 a.m., she said.

As a result, Allie doesn't stay overnight at friends' houses.

Before school starts every year, Kari and Derek Seekins have to ask Allie's new teacher to take on the responsibility of administering an emergency injection of medication if Allie's blood-sugar levels drop drastically. The teacher also has to be trained on how and when to administer the shot.

At school, Allie has a kit with snacks and juices that can help bring up low blood-sugar levels. Her parents also have to submit a plan to the school, outlining treatment and emergency responses.

During school, Allie tests her blood sugar before eating and any time she starts to experience symptoms of high or low blood sugar. Those symptoms include headaches, clouded thinking, getting really hungry or needing to go to the bathroom repeatedly.

Kari gets phone calls every day from school staff updating her on Allie's readings and asking questions about managing Allie's diabetes.

Kari also gets asked questions — and receives unsolicited advice — while out in public with her daughter. People look at Allie — a thin 8-year-old — and question how she could have diabetes, Kari said.

One time at the grocery store, a woman asked about Allie's insulin pump. When Kari explained that Allie has diabetes, the woman asked why Kari would be buying juice for her daughter.

Another time, a parent from Allie's school mentioned that her son had poor eating habits and he, too, would likely get diabetes. And another time, somebody told Kari, "At least it isn't cancer."

"It's frustrating people think it's no big deal," Kari said. "Diabetes is a life-long disease."

While diabetes is a life-long disease, children and adults can live healthy, active lives with diabetes, Hammon said. Technology is constantly improving diabetes management. Support groups, summer camps and Internet communities help support kids and families facing the disease, she said.

Still, managing the disease can be daunting for both parents and kids, Hammon said.

"There's really nothing you can't do because you're diabetic," she said. "You have to watch what you eat and you have to monitor yourself, but you can have a normal life."

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com.