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Schools unite to duel diabetes

Students who face disease enter competition to raise funds

POSTED: September 24, 2008 5:01 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

North Hall Middle School seventh-grader Clay Shope, 12, prepares to read a script that Jeff Gerrell, a technology teacher at the school, will record and edit into a public service announcement that will be broadcast over the school's radio station.

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Some might think it strange Kim McNitt steals into her daughter's room in the dead of night and pricks her big toe, drawing just a dot of blood.

Some might think it stranger her 13-year-old daughter doesn't even stir.

But after living with diabetes for four years, Lauren McNitt, an eighth-grader at Chestatee Middle School, said the nightly routine of her mother checking her blood sugar multiple times is old hat.

"It's just so part of our life now that it's nothing," Lauren said. "She feeds me chocolate milk with a straw at night, and the next day I don't even remember it. Sometimes I wake up and can still taste it, though."

Maintaining a healthy blood sugar level is a constant struggle for diabetics. More than 186,300 young people in the United States younger than age 20 have diabetes, according to the National Diabetes Education Program. This represents 0.2 percent of all people in that age group.

Constantly, they must take into account how many carbohydrates they eat and then offset their intake with insulin shots. If gone unchecked, diabetes can result in blindness, limb amputations and even death in the case of extreme low blood sugar.

"I give myself shots in my arms, my legs, my stomach," Lauren said. "It doesn't hurt."

This past summer, Lauren met Anastasia Haack at a tennis tournament. The two soon discovered they shared the same disease; Haack, a seventh-grader at North Hall Middle School, also has diabetes.

Within weeks, the girls had conjured up a plan to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, which works to find a cure for the disease that plagues them both.

After gaining support from their school leaders, Anastasia and Lauren decided to take their plan a step farther. They decided to pit North Hall Middle against Chestatee Middle in a competition to see which school could raise $2,500 by Oct. 3. Donations to the schools can be made online starting Monday.

North Hall Middle is using its new on-campus radio station 97.9 FM to broadcast notices about the competition to parents as they wait to pick their kids up or drop them off at school. Jeff Gerrell, a technology teacher at Chestatee Middle, said nine students at the middle school have diabetes, and all nine will participate in recording radio spots for the station.

Not to be outdone, Chestatee Middle has mobilized its eighth-grade business marketing class to get the word out about the competition. Business teacher Gary Martin said Lauren is heading up the fundraiser and is serving as the "company" president for the class, which offers a high school credit. Students are taking on roles typical of the corporate business model, complete with company leaders, marketers and financial consultants.

Kim McNitt said there are four students at Chestatee Middle with diabetes.

Both schools are trying to drum up money for the foundation by selling the colorful Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation paper shoes and accepting online donations. Chestatee Middle is also selling blue bracelets marked with the donation Web site www.jdrf.org.

The competition ends with the Oct. 5 Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation walk for a cure that will take place at Central Park in Cumming. The contest culminates at the North Hall Middle vs. Chestatee Middle football game at North Hall Middle on Oct. 9. The winning school will earn a trophy while the losing school's principal might get a pie in the face.

Lauren still remembers the day when her West Coast vacation was interrupted with a queasy feeling she couldn't shake. Days later, Lauren found herself in a doctor's office hearing a doctor deliver the bad news that she had diabetes.

"I didn't really know what it is, but my mom and dad sort of broke down, so I started crying, too," she said.

Although always armed with a backpack containing insulin shots, a device that measures blood sugar levels and emergency insulin shots, Lauren manages to monitor her diabetes and is able to attend school and run track.

Caleb Faulkner, an eighth-grader at North Hall Middle who has diabetes, is still able to play football for the Trojans. Since activity makes one's blood sugar level drop, Caleb sometimes has to take a seat on the bench during games.

In fact, most kids are able to lead normal lives with diabetes, but the threat of falling into a seizure is always in the back of their minds and their caregivers' minds. Research indicates juvenile diabetes is on the rise and educators say they're seeing more and more diabetic students show up in their classrooms.

"I can remember being a teacher 10 years ago and seeing no kids with diabetes," Gerrell said. "I remember the first kid coming in with this pump thing. He's cool with it, but I'm scared to death. God bless our nurses."

Jill Haack, Anastasia's mother, said until there's a cure for diabetes, her daughter will continue to wear an insulin pump in her bluejean pocket. The pump regulates Anastasia's blood sugar level, and pumps small amounts of insulin into her body through a needle lodged in her back, but shots are still required following meals. Jill Haack said balancing food intake with insulin is a tricky game.

"Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don't," she said.
Last year at school, Anastasia recalls a time when her blood sugar level wasn't quite right.

"We were writing something for a class, and I kept hitting backspace and I didn't know why, so I started crying," Anastasia said. "One of my friends went and told my teacher and then I didn't remembering anything."

Anastasia was having a seizure due to low blood sugar levels.

Jennifer Smallwood, the school nurse at North Hall Middle, sprung into action. She punctured a seizing Anastasia with a large needle and infused her with a high dose of insulin that revived her. Anastasia, a sixth-grader at the time, spent the rest of the day in the hospital hooked up to an IV with nurses closely monitoring her blood sugar levels.

At school, diabetic students must visit the school nurse frequently throughout the day to check their blood sugar levels through their pumps or by getting their fingers pricked. Smallwood said she's seen her nine diabetic students more than 700 times since school started this year.

She said two of the nine diabetic students at Chestatee Middle were diagnosed just last year. Often a virus or childhood illness triggers diabetes genes that for many lie dormant. Type I diabetes is the type most common in children, while Type II is the disease adults may find themselves inflicted with after age 40.

"Having to wake up in the middle of the night to check their blood sugar, having to eat in the middle of the night if (their blood sugar is) low, there's just a lot they have to go through that people don't know," Jill Haack said. "Diabetes does not sleep. It does not take a vacation."

Lauren said if researchers find a cure to diabetes, her life will be forever changed.

"I would be completely shocked and very, very happy. ... I wouldn't have to poke myself so much."



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