My son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes almost three years ago, when he was four. He started kindergarten as the only diabetic in a relatively small class of kids in a very small public school in a rural part of New York. And then, just as the school year ended, one of his classmates was diagnosed with type 1. My husband and I knew what this child and her family were facing—the tightrope that is maintaining healthy blood sugars; the never-ending insulin injections and carb counting; the constant care and worry. But our son didn’t view it with sadness like we did. He said he’d help her feel brave about finger sticks and shots, that he’d tell her not to be afraid. I think that in her diagnosis he saw solidarity, even happiness—there was someone who really understood what his life was like.
A year later, the kids are wrapping up first grade. At their school they have an amazing nurse who cares for them. She is kind and flexible and knows how to handle worried parents. They have a teacher who works hard to educate them around their highs and lows, who advocates and looks out for them. There’s even a lunchroom staff that diligently counts carbs and creates healthy snacks and meals. It’s a good, safe place for them to learn.
After school today, I found my son and his friend in their classroom, sitting on the floor, laughing and playing, just two kids who look like any other first-graders, minus the bulges around their waists where they wear their insulin pumps—matching pumps, I should add.
I asked them what it was like for them, both having diabetes in school.
“We have something in common!” said my son.
“Yes,” agreed his friend.
“It’s usually him,” my son’s friend told me.
“You win once in a while,” he said to her.
I asked if they ever felt different than the other kids.
“Sometimes I have to wait to eat my snack if I’m low,” she said.
“I sometimes feel special in class,” said my son. “I have to do things differently, I’m late with stuff … like practicing the play [because of a low].”
“Everyone wants to watch us when we check ourselves,” my son’s friend said. “[One classmate] says, ‘Ewww.’ I say, ‘It’s not gross, I’m used to it.’”
I asked the kids about a cure for type 1 diabetes. The previous weekend my son’s friend and her family had completed a JDRF walk for the cure.
“I think they’re going to make a new pancreas,” she said. “Cut you open, put it inside. I think they’re trying to make it right now.”
“Yes,” my son said. “It’ll be shaped like a pancreas, but the inside will be a robot.”
“But your pancreas does other things,” she said. “You need it, taking it out would be bad. Maybe they would keep the two pancreases inside of you.”
“Yes,” said my son, or “if the cure is a really, really deep shot, I’ll take it.”
I asked the kids what they wanted to be when they grew up. Both are athletes—she, a hockey and soccer player, he, a soccer and baseball player.
“I want to be a pump nurse,” my son’s friend told me.
“I want to be a coach for some kind of a sports team,” said my son, “or someone who works in a hospital to find a cure for diabetes. If they’ve already found a cure, I’ll stick to sports.”
The kids laughed, my son wiggled on the floor. “I feel low,” said my son’s friend as she grabbed her backpack. She checked her blood sugar. “108,” she announced.
“We’re totally superheroes,” said my son.
As we sat there and the kids laughed and bounced around, I saw their acceptance of one another, and I’ve seen it before—their high fives on the soccer field, the way my son puts his arm around his friend, the way he sometimes, after school, reports to me her lows or highs along with his. It’s a kind of love, like that of siblings—they left their plans to get married back in kindergarten.
Knowing what I know about type 1 diabetes, about what it takes to manage the condition and the potential for bad things to happen, I don’t wish it on anyone. But it happened to my son and his friend; this is the hand they were dealt.
Whether they realize it or not, they make life easier for each other. The fact that in this tiny school, in the same class, there are two children who have diabetes and are active and happy and healthy, changes how others, including kids and adults, see them. It changes how my son and his friend feel about themselves. They know they’re not alone. And they know they are more than just kids with diabetes.
They’re totally superheroes.