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Parenting a child with diabetes

There’s been a lot of talk on our Diabetic South Africans Facebook page about how diabetes affects the whole family. Especially after this guest article about how Diabetes destroyed my relationship with my mother. Today, we have the other side of the story to tell – a mother’s story of parenting a child with diabetes.

type 1 diabetes

Before diabetes

The World Cup Soccer was upon us! The atmosphere was abuzz with all the excitement and schools were closing for holidays. My girls were gearing up for a slumber party to celebrate Kirsten’s 16th birthday, great excitement filled the house as friends arrived present laden and ready for a night of storytelling and fun after an evening at the fan walk.

I asked her not to sleep near two girls who had a cold as it was a long holiday and I didn’t want her to get sick. The party came and went and Kirsten got the dreaded cold. She left two days later to go and spend time in Elgin with a few close friends and when she arrived home with bronchitis was put on antibiotics. She was looking very pale and her loss of weight was almost shocking. The doctor seemed concerned at the time but said we could go away and to see him on our return.

Langebaan was like a breath of fresh air compared to the madness in Cape Town and we were looking forward to a couple of days rest with good friends. Kirsten crawled into bed and did not move. We spent days trying to get her to eat to no avail and then she started vomiting: something was wrong and we could all see it. The chemist said there was a bad virus going around and she stuck to fluids for a couple of days: Energade, Powerade and naartjies were her only input.

The scariest day of my life

I could see that there was something drastically wrong on the Sunday night – it was as if she was not registering my presence, her knees had swollen to the size of rugby balls, her movement was staggered and she looked like a skeleton with skin on. I could not sleep worrying about what was happening to my beautiful daughter, was it what I had feared the most?

The morning came and with it came the scariest day of my life. I went down to check on her and she was semi-comatose. We threw everything into the back of the car and got back to the doctor in Cape Town in record time with her passing in and out of consciousness. I ran into the doctor and I said what I had been dreading to say: “I think she has diabetes!” Tests were run and confirmation came through two hours later: Kirsten was a Type 1 diabetic, her HBA1C registered as her being one for at least 3 months prior to diagnosis and she was immediately started on insulin. A new chapter in our lives had begun.

Let me just add here that on my husband’s side of the family diabetes was prevalent and I had always had a fear that my children would one day be diagnosed. I had constantly had them checked throughout their childhood. I thought by now they were all safe from this terrible burden.

Days filled with diabetes

Our days were filled with diabetes: from doctors to specialists to diabetic educators and reps, it was like a neverending story and a huge overload of information. Could the doctors be wrong? What if it was the energy drinks and naartjies we had given her that had sent her sugars over the top? Could she wake up next week and be fine? “No” was the answer to all our questions and we had to resolve ourselves to the fact that all of our lives were forever going to revolve around diabetes.

Kirsten would have to inject herself three times a day at mealtimes and once before bedtime for the rest of her life. Our days of running into the shops turned into hours reading every label and checking the carb count. All temptations were banished from the house, no more fast foods, as we started our new journey.

Unfortunately for Kirsten, things just did not seem to want to come right. She had lost 11 kilograms and had no muscle on her at all, her BMI was only 16. She could only manage to grab a millimeter of skin to inject but her blood sugar levels were fantastic and her endocrinologist was very impressed with her management thereof. Despite her levels being fine, she kept getting recurring lameness in her legs (from walking the one moment to waking up lame the next), as well as severe neck pains and constant chest infections. We had to forbid anyone near her who was even remotely sick.

At the beginning of December we were thrown into shock as she woke up with a mass of glands on either side of her groin, she was scanned and the glands were in excess of 3cm each so it looked like a bunch of grapes. We anxiously waited as they ruled out lymphoma, but praise be to God, it was not so, and she was blasted with antibiotics to reduce the glands.

Complications of diabetes

Our annual holiday to Plett arrived and everyone was so eager and happy to get there, days filled with friends and relaxation and just time to forget about the negatives of the past six months. We enjoyed the first week without a hitch and then once again Kirsten fell ill: she could not eat anything which was most frustrating as diabetics have to eat, and we landed up in the hospital where they could not find anything wrong. Two days later she could not even drink without crying and when her breathing became difficult we once again packed up everything and raced back to the doctors who knew her history in Cape Town.

She can’t recall at all how she got back home, she had lost all the weight we had painfully tried to put onto her and she was admitted for an esophagogastroduodenoscopy showing she had picked up a viral infection which had left her with hundreds of ulcers from the mouth down into her stomach, another complication of diabetes. Once again, loads of meds and a struggle to get her to put on the weight which she desperately needed to gain her strength.

Friends were understanding and eager to learn how to deal with her should her levels drop and were a constant by her side throughout. My frustration was immense, I was so mad at the world, at my Creator, for allowing this to happen to my once super-healthy and fit daughter who had the world at her feet. How could this be happening and why could I not fix it?

child with diabetesMothering a child with diabetes

I battled every day to put on a smiling face so that she could not see my worry, I would spend hours sitting in her room at the dead of night praying and watching her just to make sure she did not slip into a coma, I had prayer circles going all over the world for my girl and yet no answers were coming. I realized that God had placed my son (who has Aspergers) in our care because he thought that we could deal with it. He had now obviously decided that we did that job well as Kirsten’s sickness had to be dealt with by us too.

I felt that somehow, somewhere, I had to find the inner strength to show Kirsten that she was still the beautiful daughter I always had, except now she was more special as now it meant that we would have to care for her daily, in all walks of her life. I prayed for the strength to guide me to help her in every way that I could: my shoulders are broad and would surely bear the load.

Not a day goes by that I don’t wonder what her levels are, what she is eating or how she is feeling, if she is not with me it takes everything in my being not to reach for the phone to check. The expense of the last years has been immense, but being her constant carer and companion throughout this ordeal has changed me for the better.

Diabetes brought us closer

We are aware of everything that we eat. This is usually the stage in a teenager’s life that they tend to drift away from the parents, but we have become more united. I still allow her freedom but help by providing pre-packed meals knowing that she can enjoy herself without having to worry about where her next meal is coming from. As a family, we have always been close but this disease has brought us closer. We are always on the lookout and we stand together and work through it so that she feels that she is never alone in this lifetime fight with diabetes. We take a small step each day learning and knowing more. Her smile is constant even through all her worries and ill health and this keeps us going.

My daily thoughts revolve around Kirsten and my prayer is for a cure for diabetes to help, not only my daughter, but the millions of people living with diabetes all over the world.

– Sue

PS: Kirsten is now a successful mountain climber and blogger – follow her adventures on Instagram: cape_town_adventurer and her diabetes Instagram profile – everydayisdiabetesday

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  1. Oh my God! You have nicely explained how family can be affected by the diabetes. Thanks for sharing your views and ideas. Hope to see such interesting experiences from your side.

    • Sue de Klerk Sue de Klerk

      Thank you, it has not been an easy ride but a big learning curve for us all! X Sue

  2. Maryann Maryann

    I am a T1 diabetic since 2008, on 5 May 2018 my life changed with the diagnosis of my 14 year old daughter.
    I had always been warned that 2 of my 4 kids would be diabetic but I had always imagined it would be when they where older, I was diagnosed when I was 42
    My parents are both t2 diabetics, I have a t1 brother – so we are surrounded by this disease. My youngest daughter is the fitest person in our house. Her sport of choice is swimming, she swims 3 hours almost everyday- this has proven to be a Godsend, my mom and I noticed something was wrong when we watched her standing at the fridge drinking 3huge glasses of water. I had noticed the weight loss but I put it done to the hard hours in the pool, she was training for a level 3 gala. We took her bg, it was 29
    I phoned my endocrinologist who told me on the phone that she was t1 diabetic and to go straight to high care, he would see her in the morning- he was putting her straight on to insulin.
    It has been tuff, I thank God for my knowledge of this disease and that my children also have a reasonable understanding of it. My daughter is fit, swimming is now not only a sport, it is as important for her as her insulin. It is still early days for her, but her discipline and attitude towards how her life and eating habits has had to changed has inspired even me to try clean up my act. I am a better diabetic now, I have to lead by example, sometimes it is very hard, especially when I am not on top off my own stuff. Knowledge is power,exercise, understand, carb count .
    It is doable

    • Phew, what a story Maryann! Your family has been through a lot, but how inspiring that you’re all in it together! And how amazing that you and your daughter can support each other in this. Sending you strength! Thanks for sharing x

  3. Pontsho Tabane Pontsho Tabane

    This so inspiring, I have a nephew who is 16 years old, he was diagnosed with diabetics in November 2018. His mother passed away in 2017, he is currently staying wit my mother who is 72 years old . The main problem that I have now is that he has became so reckless with what he eats which I think he over indulges with food ( wrong stuff i.e starch ) and when I reprimand him he resorts to skipping meals and only drinks water. I am very worried about his health especially now that he has complained about blurry eyes in the morning.

    My family can afford to buy him his diet, the hard part is making sure that he eats so that he can be healthy. Can someone please assist. I’m in Soweto and I’m looking for a support group around that area.

    • Ah, so sorry to hear this Pontsho! I know how hard it can be. Why don’t you encourage him to join Youth With Diabetes – – they’re a bunch of positive teenagers and youths living with diabetes. You’re not alone in this!

  4. […] My mom knew this wasn’t the case and eventually when I ended up semi-comatose on a weekend away, she took me back to the doctor and told him to do whatever blood tests he needed to figure out what was wrong with me. That evening we got a call back with the results: my blood sugar level was around 24. I was told to go straight to a specialist and took my first insulin shot that night. The rest is history. […]

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Sweet Life is a registered NPO/PBO (220-984) with a single goal: to improve diabetes in South Africa. We are funded by sponsorships and donations from aligned companies and organisations who believe in our work. We only share information that we believe benefits our community. While some of this information is linked to specific brands, it is not an official endorsement of that brand. We believe in empowering people with diabetes to make the best decisions they can, to live a healthy, happy life with diabetes.