TEENAGERS Sarah O’Connor and Kate Desmond are the kind of lively girls you want to meet to light up your day.
The close pals are part of the triumphant Billy Jean Dance troupe, Rhythm Dance Company, who trod the light fantastic when they won Ireland’s Got Talent. Both Sarah, aged 14, and Kate, 18, have the autoimmune condition, Type 1 diabetes, (TID).
They, along with other members of the dance troop, are lending their support to this year’s Evening Echo Women’s Mini Marathon on Sunday, September 16.
“I’ve taken part in the mini-marathon before,” says Sarah.
“I did it for the children’s ward in CUH, who were very good to me when I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. So I’m ready to get going again this year with the Billy Jean gang.”
Sarah and Kate have always had a pep in their step.
“We don’t let diabetes hold us back, or let diabetes impinge on our lives,” says Sarah, who along with Kate is looking forward to taking part in the marathon too.
Kate agrees: “I’m able to do anything I want to do.”
And indeed she can.
“I’ve been accepted by UCC to study for a Music Degree,” says Kate.
“I did the entrance exam and I got my place. I hope to teach music as a career.”
The teenagers don’t waste time bemoaning their fate, choosing instead to accept it and adapt their busy lifestyles, sharing strategies, supported by their families and tight-knit group of dance buddies.
Sarah was in fifth class in St Bridget’s NS, Midleton, when she found out she had Type 1 diabetes.
TID, or Type 1 diabetes, is a disease that occurs when the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the cells in the pancreas that make insulin.
“I remember being more thirsty than usual,” says Sarah, recalling how she felt at the time.
“And I was going to the toilet more often. Mum brought me to the GP for a check-up. I strolled into the doctor, thinking nothing of it,” says Sarah.
“I was shocked when I had to go to hospital. We thought I had a kidney infection.
“I was only 11 and I had never heard of diabetes before and I was a little bit scared then. It was crazy.”
Sarah’s mother, Siobhan, was a little bit scared too.
“Sarah’s diagnosis changed our lives totally,” she says. “It was difficult to come to terms with it, and wondering how we’d manage living with Type 1 diabetes.
“Getting the correct balance of blood sugars and the strict carbohydrate count meant a lot of hard work and management. It caused a huge change in our home
Type 1 diabetes involves a lot of careful calculation.
“Stabilising bloods 24 hours a day forever seemed a daunting task,” says Siobhan.
“Two days in, I thought we’ll never sustain a lifetime of this. I remember when Sarah came back from hospital, I slept with her so that I could check her bloods throughout the night so the sugars didn’t go too high or too low. I treated Sarah like a new-born baby.”
But soon it became second nature for the O’Connor family.
“I had to learn bit by bit and I became less nervous,” says Siobhan.
“Sarah’s sister, Clara, and her brother, Ross, took things on board and they were great support for Sarah.”
Not everyone understood Type 1 diabetes.
“Some of the kids who didn’t understand my condition, said to me ‘What a pity you ate so much sugar’,” says Sarah.
“There was nothing I could have done differently to avoid getting Type 1 diabetes.”
Sarah was often upset.
“I used to go home crying to mum. People were confused and they often thought that we did something wrong because we had diabetes. They said things in jest, like; ‘no more chocolate! Forget desserts’. Sometimes it was difficult to keep a good mood up,” says Sarah.
“Emotion can affect blood sugar levels. Type 1 diabetes is internal and it fluctuates. Now I can read my body so well.”
Somebody else was introduced at school.
“At CUH, the nurses called my diabetes Peter the Pancreas,” says Sarah smiling.
“It was a way of explaining my diabetes to me. My teacher showed the class videos about Peter the Pancreas, so my classmates knew about diabetes.
“My SNA, Loretta, was brilliant in fifth and sixth class. She checked my bloods twice during the school day. It was new to everyone.”
Sarah thought she might not be able to do the things she liked best.
“I thought I’d never be able to have a sleepover ever again in case I’d have a hypo and nobody would know what to do,” says Sarah.
“But all my friends were great. They had snacks like Skittles and Jelly Babies all ready for me. And they’d jump up and get my kit during the night. Nell and Ellie are my best friends. They were always there for me, and Kate is like my big sister. We get each other.”
Sarah and Kate got to know how to manage their diabetes, living a full, healthy, energetic life.
“We learned how to balance the ratio of carbs versus insulin,” says Sarah.
“I prick my finger five or ten times a day two hours after eating to read my blood sugar levels,” says Sarah.
“Kate prefers to use a scanner.”
Continuous glucose monitoring including taking readings of blood sugar up to six times a day is part of the sensitive schedule to avoid ‘hypos’, when the glucose, also called blood sugar, falls too low below normal. Dangerous blood sugar levels can result in a coma.
“It is a very complex condition,” says Sarah.”Sleep is important.”
The girls can carry on dancing, socialising, playing soccer and enjoy eating out with their pals, once the combination of blood sugar and insulin is stable.
“Yes, it did change our lives,” admits Kate, who was 12 when she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
“It was half-term, Halloween, when my Nan noticed that I was drinking too much. A test at my GP’s showed that my blood sugars were high and that I had Type 1 diabetes,
“It meant concentrating more on maintaining my blood sugar levels to avoid hypos, or lows, which can happen if you have too little food or glucose. Then you become listless and lethargic.”
Sarah and Kate didn’t let Type 1 diabetes slow them down. Instead, it speeded them up.
“We always have the energy for dancing,” says Kate.
“It gives us stamina. Dancing is liberating. Training and performing is fantastic. We always have plenty of water and snacks with us to make sure our blood sugars are regulated.”
The girls are looking forward to lining out at the start point for the Evening Echo Mini-Marathon.
“It’ll be great fun,” says Sarah.
Living with Type 1 diabetes has never impacted negatively on Sarah or Kate.
“We always pick ourselves up and get going again,” says Kate.
If you want to take part in this year’s mini marathon see