"They were very subtle symptoms," said Teig Kjos, "but since my mother-in-law has Type I diabetes, I always watched for warning signs in my three children."
Because of the family history, their pediatrician saw Elena right away.
"First they pricked her finger," Teig Kjos recalled. "It takes just a few seconds to get a reading on a blood glucose monitor (used by diabetics) and it was high-- over 400."
She knew the blood sugar level should register between 80 and 120.
"The next morning we had an appointment with an endocrinologist, and Elena started injections immediately," Teig Kjos said. "She was so great about it. She never complained, she never got angry."
But Teig Kjos said she herself was devastated inside.
"It changed Elena's life -- our lives -- forever," she said.
Type 1 diabetes, also called juvenile diabetes, is an auto-immune disease. For still unknown reasons, the body destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Without insulin, the glucose builds up in the bloodstream, causing high blood sugar, and the body basically starts to starve.
The more common form of diabetes, Type 2, is often referred to as a "lifestyle disease," said Teig Kjos, because it can often be controlled by eating healthier and exercising regularly. "But with Type 1 diabetes, Elena's dependent on insulin for the rest of her life. Can you imagine what that's like? Whenever you want to eat or drink something, you have to see what your blood glucose level is, and then take insulin, either by giving yourself a shot or through an insulin pump."
Teig Kjos pointed out that exercise, stress and illness also affect blood sugar level, which complicates life further for diabetics. High blood sugar, left untreated for a long period of time, can cause major health problems, such as heightened risk for stroke, heart attack, kidney damage and blindness.
"But what's even more scary is that very low blood sugar levels can be life-threatening," Teig Kjos explained. "A parent's worst fear is if their child has low blood sugar in the middle of the night, they're not going to wake up. If a Type 1 diabetic doesn't have some type of sugar available to them immediately when they're extremely low, they can go into a coma and die."
Teig Kjos visited every one of Elena's teachers, to explain how to recognize signs of low blood sugar, and to give them juice and glucose tablets in case her blood sugar got too low during class. Elena always carries juice and snacks with her as well.
Elena, now 18 and a senior at Amador Valley High, has an insulin pump and sensor, which monitor her blood sugar level continually and help calculate and deliver insulin.
"The pump is working well," said Teig Kjos. "It's helpful to be able to see what her blood sugar level is at any time, and much better than her having to take five to seven shots per day."
But she notes that it needs daily maintenance, and two separate sensors must be inserted under the skin and changed every three days. "It's still a long way from having a working pancreas."
The family supports the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, which funds research to find a cure for Type 1 diabetes. Elena and her family will be taking part in Pleasanton's first 5K Family "Walk for a Cure," sponsored by Club Sport, on Sunday. The walk will take place from 9-11 a.m. along the Arroyo Trail. Organizers are requesting a $10 minimum donation, which includes social time afterward and a drawing for a Converse tennis shoes. Call ClubSport at 463-2822, ext. 570.
The proceeds of the walk will help fund JDRF initiatives, such as its Artificial Pancreas Project. It was begun in 2005, but has yet to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
"Medical devices like this undergo intense scrutiny, and rightfully so," said Teig Kjos, "but we need Congress to act more quickly on legislation that affects projects for diabetes."
"People need to understand that diabetes is becoming an epidemic," Teig Kjos added, "and millions of diabetics are walking around undiagnosed. We need to support research and education efforts now."
Early warning signs of diabetes