By Cara Dimarcantonio
I am a full-time student involved in multiple extracurricular activities, as well as an unpaid intern and part-time employee. One day this summer, my pancreas decided to make me do its job (which is to produce insulin, a hormone which aids the transport and storage of the sugar broken down from carbohydrates in my food). What did this mean for me? I was diagnosed with Type One diabetes.
I have to maintain a healthy blood sugar on my own, since I no longer possess a functioning organ to maintain it for me automatically. Every time I eat, I need to calculate or estimate how much insulin will be required for the food I’m eating. It is time consuming, mentally draining, and honestly just kind of unfair. No one asked me if I wanted diabetes. I was taken completely by surprise.
On July 31, just over three months ago, I was hospitalized for severe diabetic ketoacidosis and subsequently diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. The months and years leading up to my diagnosis were filled with unconnected dots that, if recognized earlier, could have prevented such a dramatic diagnosis. As early as two years ago I began feeling physically drained and constantly dehydrated, and no matter what I did to address my symptoms, I never felt any better. In the hospital this summer, I was inundated with information about checking my blood sugar, injecting myself with needles, and understanding what my condition was doing to my body. After leaving the hospital, I began to quickly adjust to my new routine, talking to my doctor daily to determine my insulin dosage. After just two weeks, I left home and came back to Catholic for pre-Orientation training for Freshman Retreat Staff and Renew Core Team. Needless to say, my life for the past three months has been overwhelming, challenging, and to be honest, frightening.
“So, like, what can you eat?” This is a question I often hear after giving my diagnosis spiel. The answer: pretty much anything, as long as I take enough insulin to keep my blood sugar reasonably within my target range. Sounds simple enough, right?
The challenge comes when I can’t immediately figure out how much carbohydrate is in my food. I have developed in this skill over the past couple months, but it was a learning curve and took time (and patience) to decrease my margin of error. Eating on campus as a diabetic has its own challenges, as well as some of its own advantages. While it would be easiest if I was at home in my own kitchen, the university has countless resources available in an attempt to make my daily routine less difficult, so I can focus more on my academics and less on the total carbohydrate of a plum (which is 7.5 grams of carb, FYI).
I begin every day looking at the Student Restaurant’s menu for the day. Dining Services makes this available on their website, and typically has the menu updated to at least a week in advance. Each food station, including the salad bar, has what is being served for a given meal. You have the option of clicking on specific parts of the meal to see nutrition facts, which are important for me since this is where I can find an exact number of total carbohydrates. In the Student Restaurant, there are also usually laminated cards hanging next to the food at each station. These cards have the ingredients, as well as the same list of nutrition facts you can find online. In the event that I didn’t have time to check the website on my computer, I can look at these cards or access the website from my cell phone or the iPad in the Student Restaurant. Checking the menu helps me make decisions about which food to eat and calculate how much carbohydrate is in my food.
These measures are extremely helpful, and I don’t take them for granted. However, they are not perfect. The website does not always have accurate or complete information. The white laminated cards are sometimes missing the total carbohydrate information, or are just missing themselves. There have been occasions when the iPad doesn’t work.
A huge challenge has been figuring out portion sizes. Some stations are self-service, which I don’t mind. The problem is that I don’t always know how much food corresponds with the nutrition facts they give me, or I have to estimate how large a serving size is that they provide. The latter is doable as long as I can train my eyes to scoop one cup of something without actually measuring it. The former is basically impossible. There have been plenty of occasions when I’ve gone to the vegetarian station, excited to eat a delicious curried cauliflower dish of some sort, only to discover the serving size on the white laminated card says “Serving Size: One serving.” This doesn’t actually help me, because I don’t know how much food is actually in a serving size of that dish. In frustration, I just avoid those foods. Is is not really fair, but I would rather eat something else than risk taking too much or too little insulin for the food I am about to consume.
Just because I can eat whatever I want doesn’t necessarily mean I should. When I am in a rush I cannot just grab the first thing that looks good. I need to be conscious of what I am eating, so I attempt to plan ahead with online menus in order to save myself some time. I have grabbed Chick-fil-a and bagels when I was rushing to eat something in between classes or meetings, and have had to address high blood sugar later on. There simply are not always enough healthy options to grab quickly, and a girl can only eat so many bananas with peanut butter.
This is where I need to get creative. I’m limited in the options available in the Pryz, so I try my best to switch up the combinations of food that I eat. It is easiest if I repeat the same meal combinations because I already know how much insulin those meals take, but it’s easy to get bored doing that. Also, the Pryz doesn’t always have the exact same things for me to eat a substantial amount of. The best meals to repeat are oatmeal with blueberries for breakfast, a whole wheat turkey sandwich from the deli for lunch, and a salad or burrito bowl from the food court for dinner.
As frustrating as this adjustment has been, I am overwhelmed by the support I have received on campus. It has been a very positive experience with Disability Support Services, the Dean of Students office and the Student Health Center. I have an upcoming appointment with our campus dietitian to get further guidance in making the healthiest food choices. This experience has been a learning curve, not only for me, but also my family and my university community. Next time you see someone like me inspecting the nutrition facts on those white laminated cards you probably ignore, pricking our fingers to check our blood sugars, or injecting ourselves with insulin before a meal, don’t just stare—ask questions. Change begins where there is awareness. My life, and the life of other diabetic students, will get easier when those around us gain a better understanding of what we go through each day. Invisible illnesses are easy to ignore, so it’s vital for us to openly discuss what can be done to make life on campus a little more accommodating for all students—pancreas or no pancreas.