Abigail Neal jumps, her clenched fists pounding the air as the ball flies over the net. It’s the team’s first successful bump, set, spike during volleyball practice, and the girls erupt in squeals, the sound bouncing off the gym walls like errant serves. Her insulin pump, hooked like a pager to her shorts, jiggles as she bounds across the court to high-five teammates, but Abigail, 10, doesn’t notice. She’s worn the pump, which supplies a steady stream of insulin to her body through a tube, since she was 4. She doesn’t remember life before it, or worry about the tube being ripped out during practice. It’s happened before and will probably happen again, her mother Kimberly Neal says, watching from the bleachers.
Except for quick breaks to check her blood sugar and adjust her insulin dose, Abigail is like any other kid on the team. She has diabetes, but she doesn’t let it stop her from living her life, her mother says. That’s one of the things Abigail and her family learned from Janet Silverstein, M.D. and the UF doctors who have been treating her since she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes six years ago. “One of the things they told us is she’s going to be a kid, let her be a kid,” Neal says. “Don’t limit things. They were very reassuring that life can be normal.” The Gainesville family met with UF pediatric diabetes specialists at UF Health Shands Hospital the day after Abigail was diagnosed. During a one-day crash course on diabetes, the Neal’s learned how to inject insulin, how to treat low and high blood sugar and how to eat properly.
“It’s scary because you don’t know what the diagnosis means,” Neal says. “Growing up, you hear all that stuff (about diabetes): You lose a foot, you lose your eyesight … you lose everything. I was like, ‘Oh my God, my poor kid is never going to be normal.’ And then as you’re educated about it, you learn (complications arise from a) lack of control.”
Five months after her diagnosis, Abigail became the youngest patient at UF to be placed on an insulin pump, which allows for better blood sugar control than standard insulin shots, says Silverstein, chief of the UF pediatric endocrinology division. “Kids at that age, they would eat or not eat, and it was really impossible to control her diabetes with a fixed dose of insulin,” Silverstein says. Thanks to the care of “Dr. Janet,” as the Neal’s call her, Abigail has yet to endure a hospital stay because of her diabetes, Neal says. If Abigail is having a problem, Neal calls Silverstein or shoots her an e-mail to discuss what to do. “You have to find that relationship with the doctors because it’s your kid,” Neal says. “With so many doctors involved (here), you can find one that fi ts. My husband and I joke we’re in Gainesville forever because we won’t let her leave here. This is where she is taken care of.”
Medical care isn’t the only support UF provides for kids with diabetes. Each summer, Silverstein and other UF doctors and nurses volunteer for Florida Diabetes Camp, which holds five summer camps for diabetic children as well as weekend retreats for families throughout the year. “I’ve gone ever since I was 4,” Abigail says. “You get to be with people who are just like you and you also get to have fun. Even most of the counselors have diabetes.”
But Abigail says she doesn’t mind teaching kids who don’t have the disease. Each year at the beginning of the school year, Abigail reads her class a book, shows them how she checks her blood sugar and answers questions. Her classmates usually ask about her pump and if it hurts to prick her fingers to test her blood sugar. It doesn’t, she says, pointing to her calloused fingertips. “We find that people are really open to learning about diabetes,” Neal says. “Mostly, it’s because Abigail is so open to teaching them about it.”