CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.– It was just your regular afternoon scene in our household. Our two kids were busy with another impromptu dance party, when our five-year-old, Matteo, abruptly started shouting, pointing to the TV screen.
“Mommy, it’s a pod! He has one too!”
I looked up and saw what Matteo was pointing at. There it was. Right there in a ‘Blues Clues’ video: the pink dolphin, Drake, had something small and white on his left fin, an Omnipod. A tubeless insulin pump my son wears on his thighs or arms everyday. An insulin pump that sometimes makes him feel different; a pod he dreads changing every three days because it means another needle prick. It was there in one of his favorite videos.
He wasn’t alone in this.
“I didn’t really know any athletes or many people that were battling it growing up,” said Virginia freshman forward Isaac Traudt.
Type 1 diabetes isn’t really represented in classical media. In some schools, a child could very well be the only type 1 diabetic in an entire school or even district.
Traudt, along with fellow Cavalier, wrestler Jarod Verkleeren, are hoping to change that. In a partnership with Dexcom, a company that develops and manufactures continuous glucose monitoring systems for diabetes management, Traudt and Verkleeren hope to bring awareness to a disease that affects over 1.45 million Americans, according to the JDRF
“My main goal is to inspire young kids that are questioning whether or not they’ll be able to compete at a high level in sports,” said Traudt. “I’m just trying to show them that they can. It’s definitely a battle, and it takes a lot of responsibility, but it’s definitely possible.”
It’s a battle that sometimes feels like there’s no end in sight.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that occurs when your pancreas does not make or makes too little insulin, which means the body is unable to process glucose, your body’s main source of energy. Both Traudt and Verkleeren were diagnosed at the age of four-years-old. Traudt was diagnosed shortly after exhibiting the classic type 1 warning sign, excessive thirst, but Verkleeren was not as lucky.
“My parents, they noticed some signs like a week prior, and I was going to the bathroom a lot. Just basically like sleeping all day,” recounted Verkleeren. “The doctors basically said he’s just sick, give him some medicine. It’ll be okay. And then the next week I was life-flighted, and that’s when I officially found out.”
Verkleeren was in diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), which is a serious complication of diabetes that can be life-threatening, and unfortunately many people are only diagnosed when they reach DKA.
Type 1 diabetes is less common than type 2 – only about 5-10% of people with diabetes have type 1 -which means even medical professionals can miss early signs of type 1 or may not fully understand the disease and what it is or means.
After you or your child is diagnosed, you are given a crash course on how not to let your child die or end up in a hospital room. This is literally what my family’s diabetic educator called our training, and then you are promoted to being your or your child’s pancreas. It’s a daunting task for anyone, but especially for an athlete.
Blood sugars can be affected by many things, including: temperature, hormones, exercise, anxiety, adrenaline, food…you name it, and your blood sugar is probably affected by it.
“It’s just one of those diseases that it’s tricky to manage,” said Verkleeren . “You can have a pretty consistent diet and your numbers are still going to change, just based on your exercise and not even counting everything else.”
Your insulin doses are constantly changing.
Traudt, who wears a T-Slim pump, enrolled at Virginia this summer and saw his insulin needs change as soon as practice picked up.
“I had to adjust my carb ratios, and basal rates and correction factors, actually everything, it’s just a lot,” he said. “I was getting higher throughout the day until practice, and then I would be low during the night, so we had to change things up.”
My coaches, teammates, and athletic trainers play a vital role in helping me with my diabetes! They are always checking on me making sure my glucose levels are where they need to be. pic.twitter.com/ocLfPSF9A4
Meanwhile, Verkleeren’s insulin needs have started to change as his season begins.
“It’s a lot less insulin during the season, because I’m exercising more, eating less, while managing my weight,” he explained. “I would say my Levemir (long acting insulin) is probably around 11-12 units, but during the summer, I’ll have 16 units in the morning and then before bed – I break up my long acting insulin into two shots. And then in the summer, I’ll have 10 units for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and now it’s more like two units.”
Juggling lows can be hard for Verkleeren, who also is trying to manage his weight.
“Some nights I’m trying to get some cardio in and my numbers drop,” he explained. “I’m not hungry, but I have to eat and that adds weight – you don’t burn as much, you have more calories that you need to lose for the next day, so that’s kind of the challenge and what, what I have to juggle.”
It’s a lot of trial and error – you are basically conducting a science experiment on your own body as you try to determine the best way to manage your blood sugars, while not impacting your performance.
According to the American Diabetes Association, people with diabetes are recommended to have a blood glucose range of 80–130 mg/dl right before a meal and then at two hours after the beginning of the meal, the blood sugar level should be below 180 mg/dl. Depending on the type of exercise, blood sugars can either rise or fall – and sometimes the fall can come at any time in the next 24 hours. While high blood sugars can have long term complications, zap your energy, and lead you into DKA, low sugars can cause seizures and unconsciousness.
“I like to be 150-170 for a game, so that way exercise will naturally bring it down, but by the end of the game it won’t be too low,” said Traudt.
“I like it around 100-110,” said Verkleeren. “I have an adrenaline spike that I usually experience before pre matches, and it can shoot it up pretty quickly. So 100, that’s probably my ideal number.”
Having a Constant Glucose Monitor (CGM) is a game changer for athletes – honestly for anyone with type 1 diabetes. The Dexcom is one type of CGM, which checks your blood sugar every five minutes. You can see your number on your phone and it will alert you, or anyone that has the companion app that is designated to follow you, if you are too high, too low, or trending dangerously low.
Verkleeren has been on the Dexcom for the last three years.
“It’s way different,” he said. “So basically, before, I would just have to check my blood sugar by pricking my finger and get the reading that way. Now, I can look at my phone and I get 24 hour access to my blood sugar.”
“I mean, without the Dexcom and T-Slim, if I was just doing injections with no sensor, I don’t see how this would be possible, because I’m constantly checking my blood sugar during practice and making corrections,” said Traudt. “It would just be difficult to do all this stuff. So I’m very grateful to have this.”
Technology has come a long way in type 1 diabetes management but that’s only one side to this disease.
Mental burnout is a real thing. Type 1 diabetes does not give you a day off and it can really affect a child’s mental health. People with type 1 diabetes are at a heightened risk for mental health issues, including diabetes distress, depression, anxiety, and disordered eating. This is why Traudt and Verkleeren are using their NIL opportunity to give people hope.
“I wasn’t gonna let that stop me from accomplishing what I wanted to do,” said Traudt. “But I think it would have been really nice to have somebody like a collegiate athlete that I could talk to you about it or even the high school athletes that I knew.”
“The younger ones that are starting to get newly diagnosed, they’ve reached out to me and said, thank you so much,” said Verkleeren
“It’s been awesome to kind of inspire the youth and other athletes that are battling type one diabetes as well,” said Traudt. “I’ve had some people reach out and say, now that it’s really cool that I’m doing this. It’s usually parents that are telling me about their young kids that have been diagnosed and it makes them feel better that there’s athletes out there with it as well.”
“If my story can help them in some way for the next generation of wrestlers or just any athlete, because I feel like hope is a powerful thing,” Verkleeren. “They can have someone to look up to and not feel afraid. Help them not to doubt themselves; they can do this sport. That’s pretty awesome.”
It is pretty awesome.
This is one step in making sure type 1 diabetes is not just that rare “pink dolphin” sighting in mainstream media.
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