Pleasanton Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - October 7, 2011

Zoe's hope

Mother is one of thousands walking to cure diabetes

by Glenn Wohltmann

Most people walk with a destination in mind. For Zoe Francis, that destination is a lot farther than she can see: She walks with the hope of finding a cure for juvenile diabetes.

Like most people, Francis didn't pay too much attention to chronic illnesses until one struck her family, when her daughter, Hannah, was diagnosed in April 1998.

Hannah was 5 at the time. She's now 18 and off at college, but Francis is still committed to finding a cure. She'll be walking in her 14th Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Walk to Cure Diabetes event on Oct. 16 under the name Hannah's Hikers.

"As a parent, you feel so helpless when your child is diagnosed with an incurable disease," Francis said. "I started looking for something I could do and so I found JDRF."

She said the name "juvenile diabetes" is misleading. It affects adults as well as children -- Mary Tyler Moore was 33 when she found she had the disease -- and children diagnosed grow up and live their entire lives with it.

"It used to be that only kids got juvenile diabetes but now adults are being diagnosed, just like Type 2 -- now kids are getting that, too," Francis said. "Probably the most apt description is 'insulin-dependent diabetes.'"

In Type 2 diabetes, either the body does not produce enough insulin or the cells ignore it. In juvenile diabetes, Type 1, the body is actively trying to reject one of its organs, the pancreas, which makes insulin, which in turn helps the body absorb sugars.

"Type 1 is an autoimmune disease. Something triggers your body to attack your pancreas and it doesn't work anymore," Francis explained. "It has nothing to do with their lifestyle. It doesn't have anything to do with diet or exercise."

"You have to have insulin to process sugar," she added. "My kid just can't take a pill, she has to manage her disease every day."

Francis said Type 1 is insidious because even with a pancreas transplant, the body still tries to reject the organ.

The diagnosis meant a huge learning curve, and not just for Hannah.

"We were at Stanford hospital for a week. They don't let you out until you can care for your kid," Francis said. "You have to do the work, and now Hannah has to do the work. She relies on insulin. You have to balance how much insulin you have, how much food you take in. and how much exercise you have. You can to the same thing every day and get different results. It's never a rote thing."

Francis joked that when Hannah was diagnosed, it came in handy that she's obsessive compulsive.

"I worried a lot. You have to measure their food. You have to weigh their food and then figure out how much insulin they need. Pizza does more for her blood sugar than a candy bar does," she explained. "It's not about sugar, it's about carbohydrates."

At first, Francis and her husband Rick had to manage Hannah's diabetes for her. Over time, Francis had to learn to let go.

"I was a control freak when she was younger, and then I transferred responsibility to her as she grew into it. Middle school was a transition because she went from one teacher to look over her to six teachers," Zoe Francis said. "I completely backed off when she was in high school."

That left Francis with more time to dedicate to JDRF. She's headed up the JDRF Family Walk Team for the last four years, rallying family teams to register for the walk and write fundraising letters, as well as providing help in setting up fundraising pages on the JDRF website.

This year Zoe will walk without her daughter, who now attends the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash. Her family has raised more than $160,000 since 1998.

She's also run a support group, where she helped parents learn more about the disease. While high blood sugar can lead to long-term complications like vision and heart problems, low blood sugar can lead to disorientation and confusion, she explained.

An engineer who spoke to her group, for instance, said that once when he knew his blood sugar was low, he went to a vending machine to buy a Coke but he couldn't figure out how to work it. A janitor in the building had to help him.

Francis and Hannah's Hikers will be among about 6,000 walkers representing local families, corporations, schools and other organizations in the 2011 Walk to Cure Diabetes in the Bay Area throughout the month. Her group will walk at the Oakland Zoo on Oct. 16.

"Our goal for the East Bay walk is 624,000," Francis said, adding that she did some research before committing her efforts to JDRF.

"I know there are other groups out there. I believe that JDRF is working hardest for better therapies and a cure," she said. "They were founded by and run by parents. I like that."

Francis said the organization has changed its focus. While the group was once dedicated to finding a cure, it's now exploring therapies like an artificial pancreas while continuing to look for a permanent cure to Type 1 diabetes.

Unlike an artificial heart, an artificial pancreas is an external device, an insulin pump similar to the one Hannah wears and a constant glucose meter that communicates. The device is currently in adult trials, but not yet available to everyone.

Francis said this area is one of the best places in the country for people with Type 1 diabetes.

"We're fortunate in the Bay Area that a lot of the JDRF funds stay here," she said. "Stanford and UCSF get quite a bit of JDRF funding -- the Bay Area is a good place to have juvenile diabetes."

Although it seems to be a long way off, Francis said she will work until a cure is found for her daughter and the 13,000 children diagnosed with the disease every year.

"I hope there's a cure in my lifetime. I hoped there'd be a cure by the time she went off to college. Now I hope there's a cure by the time she graduates," she said. "It's much more complicated than anyone realized. I'll keep fundraising every year until there's a cure."

2011 Venues for Walk to Cure Diabetes

California's Great America, Santa Clara

Sunday, Oct. 9

Check in: 7:30 a.m., Walk: 9 a.m.

Oakland Zoo, Oakland

Sunday, Oct. 16

Check in: 7:30 a.m., Walk: 9 a.m.

Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Monterey

Sunday, Oct. 23

Check in: 9:30 a.m., Walk: 11 a.m.

Marina Green, San Francisco

Sunday, Oct. 30

Check in: 9:30 a.m., Walk: 11 a.m.

For more information, visit www.jdrfbayarea.org/walk

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