Family unites to solve diabetes risky riddles

Three generations turn to nutritious foods to lower blood sugar levels in 7-year-old

By Art Simas

Copyright 2006  Worcester Telegram & Gazette,
Worcester, Mass

In August 2001, on a splendid sunny day, 7-year-old Danny Plunkett took a step backward on to the road - and into the path of an oncoming car which struck him at 40 miles per hour.

The family vacation at the beach was over in a flash.

Much to the relief of his mother, Laura, father Brian, and sister, Jessie, Danny fully recovered from his injuries over the next several weeks.

He and his sister came down with several colds during that winter, though, and there were several trips to the doctor. Just routine. Things would get better once the holidays were over and everything settled down.

But something had happened inside of Danny that no one could see, let alone understand. The call from the family doctor in January confirmed that Danny had juvenile diabetes, also known as Type 1. His blood sugar levels now had to be closely monitored - all the time - or else he could lapse in a seizure or a coma and possibly die.

The shock hit Laura particularly hard.

In her book about her and her family's experience over the next five years, "The Challenge of Childhood Diabetes," she wrote, "My mind went dark and unbearable thoughts blotted out every word after that. If I made a mistake in judgment, my son could die. All I could focus on was that the insulin needed to keep him alive could also kill him."

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When Danny went to the hospital for a complete evaluation, the health care system went into fast-forward phase. Overnight, the family was given a crash course about diabetes, and learned: how to administer shots of insulin; how much to give; what to do if Danny's "numbers" were too high or too low; who to call in an emergency.

While in the hospital, Danny got to pick his lunch and dinner menus - grilled cheese, macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets, sugar-free Jell-O, and diet soda.

"I was vaguely aware that Danny was eating worse food here than he did at home," Laura said.

Despite assurances from medical professionals that "he's doing fine and that's just normal," something didn't feel right, she said. If my son had diabetes and he was supposed to keep his blood sugar levels in check because it could be potentially harmful to his health in the future, why would people allow him to eat poorly?

That thought became the motivation behind the book because Laura had to find a better way. Laura's parents, Jack and Linda Weltner, also were concerned for Danny, as well as all members of the family, especially 10-year-old Jessie.From the beginning, the family decided to include her in all discussions about her brother's illness.

Jessie accepted the challenge and began taking detailed notes. Her studies actually save Danny's life a few months because she knew how to respond in an emergency. Brian had to rearrange his work schedule and now was the unofficial fitness coach for his son, making sure that he received enough exercise at the right times.

But it was such a struggle because diabetes needs constant attention. It doesn't care about your social calendar or when you'd like to go to sleep. It's demanding and all-consuming without uttering a word. Keeping up with the roller-coaster mood swings, forced feedings to balance the numbers and a few close calls required everyone's full attention.

The first time Laura had to shop for groceries was anything but routine. She had to plan every meal and snack according to the carbohydrate content, estimate the amount of insulin that would be required and try to give a growing boy what he wanted to eat. In the aisles and crying, said she felt helpless. "What I needed at that moment was another mother who'd been through this and who could have told me what I know now: that my son would learn to eat a wider range of foods and that we were on the road, tough as it was, to something manageable."

But at the time, without anyone to turn to, she cried all the way home with only popcorn (15 carbs for 3 cups) and almonds (5 carbs for one-quarter cup).

Determined to find a better balance, Laura read everything she could about diabetes and also sought the advice and services of non-traditional therapies, such as reflexology and acupuncture and acupressure.

At the same time, the entire family began a nutritional transition away from processed foods and starches and toward low carb diets. If Danny could keep his glycosylated hemoglobin (HbA1c) level under 7.0 (a measure of blood sugar in the body over three months), he would likely not encounter harmful health risks in the future that would be attributed to diabetes.

And that's the reason why she, with her mother, Linda Weltner, wrote the book - to give parents a roadmap of what to expect; to allow themselves to find better alternatives for their children and find the best medical support team; to teach parents how to gain cooperation from children with diabetes; illustrate how important that fathers participate in their children's care; and raise medical awareness on the nutritional and psychological needs of parents of children with diabetes.

Part 3 in the book is a "Survival Guide for Parents," which includes what is needed to treat diabetes, log books, medical information sheets, getting support and the emotional perspectives of dealing with a child with the disease.

Brian Plunkett said, "I think families split apart under the pressure (of dealing with a child with diabetes) or they do the opposite - they pull together.

"And the families that are able to pull together do so because they are honest with each other about what the demands are and about how they're feeling about taking care of a person with diabetes, and they communicate well. We communicate really well with our children, about what our expectations are, with our in-laws and Laura and I communicate a lot on what needs to be done."

Laura said, "One of the surprises for me was being able to rely on my parents so heavily. "We had a lot of scares at the beginning and I had to call my parents. And so in that sense, once your parents have reached out and been able to help you at 3 a.m. . you're changed after that.

"Already we were strong together. But this thing (diabetes) that Danny brought into our lives, has definitely improved how much we love and respect and lean on each other."