For many lucky kids across the country, the children with DIABETES® Friends for Life® conference in Orlando, held annually in July, is a time to see old friends, meet new ones, and have some fun in the sun.
It’s a chance — sometimes the only one all year — for children with type 1 diabetes to hang out with children just like themselves. “I get to be with the people I love, learn how to take better care of my diabetes, go to Disney® parks, and have the time of my life,” says Shelby, 15. “Friends for Life has changed my life. It makes you realize that you aren’t alone; many kids have type 1 diabetes just like I do.”
Eight-year-old Lila agrees. “I like feeling that the conference is special just for us and that I’m not the only one with a pump. It’s really cool seeing all the different blood sugar monitors that people use and seeing them check their sugar everywhere,” she says.
Kids aren’t the only ones who benefit from attending. “Meeting other parents who can relate to this disease is unbelievably comforting,” says Emily Blake-Haskins, Lila’s mom. “We very much enjoy the social events, but directly benefit from the sessions on topics such as advance pumping, type 1 diabetes and sports, and research projects like the artificial pancreas. This will be our third conference; we took one year off and sorely regretted it!”
Shelby’s mom, Betty Smith, has had a similar experience. “Sharing and talking with other moms and getting tips like using the empty test strip vial as a temporary discard for used pen needles — little things like that can be so helpful,” she says. Just seeing her daughter on cloud nine for five days makes it worth the trip, she adds. “The very first conference we attended, she was 6 years old. It still brings tears to my eyes remembering her seeing another kid pull out their blood glucose meter or their insulin pen to get an injection. She felt normal. This is priceless.”
Parents with bigger families don’t have to worry about their other children being left out. “Our older daughter Olivia, age 10, has met other siblings and has thoroughly enjoyed her experience as well,” says Blake-Haskins. “It truly benefits our entire family.”
Enjoying Disney World®
Connecting with friends is wonderful — but hitting the Disney parks is a nice perk to the conference!
“I’d have to go with The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror™,” says 11-year-old Justin Geils when asked to name his favorite Disney World ride. Another memory from that trip: having to check his blood sugar levels every two hours, which he says didn’t dampen his fun at all. “Yeah, it was totally worth it.”
Visiting any amusement park with a child with type 1 diabetes has its challenges, acknowledges Kimberly Chisholm, Ph.D., vice president of research at JDRF Bay Area in San Francisco, whose 14-year-old son was diagnosed two years ago. “People tend to underestimate how excitement and adrenaline can monkey with blood sugar,” she explains. “Plus, you have to think about the heat and that you’ll be walking much farther than you may perceive.” Happily, the solution is straightforward: “It just means you have to test more often,” she says.
Justin’s mother, Diane Geils, is a nurse who believes in packing like a Boy Scout. “When we travel, we always figure out how many supplies we’ll need, then double it. We bring twice the insulin, syringes, testing supplies, and also twice the snacks. I carry half the supply, and the other half goes in a second bag, in case one gets lost or stolen,” she says. Geils also keeps the contact information handy for Justin’s doctor, in the unlikely event that they run out of supplies and need a prescription faxed to an out-of-town pharmacy.
“That’s smart advice,” says Chisholm. “You have to prepare for the unexpected. For example, if your child wears a pump, it’s completely conceivable that during a day at an amusement park his infusion site might get pulled out. So you want to bring along syringes and a vial of insulin, just in case.”
Luckily, Disney World has many resources to help you manage your child’s type 1 diabetes. Here are some tips to ensure you have a happy and healthy Disney vacation:
- Headed to the Magic Kingdom® or Epcot®? Hollywood Studios® or Animal Kingdom®? No matter: Start your day at the Guest Relations counter located just inside the turnstile of the park’s entrance. Disney cast members are trained to answer any questions you might have.
- Consider requesting Disney’s Guest Assistance Card there on hot days to help you get through lines more comfortably and avoid overheating, suggests Smith.
- Pick up a free map and locate the First Aid center, your refuge should you need a cool resting place or a consultation with a registered nurse. In addition, First Aid can securely store your supplies, refrigerate your medicine and safely dispose of sharps free of charge.
- Plan to check blood sugar levels more frequently.
- Pack a range of snacks to manage blood sugar levels. “Bring glucose tabs and juice boxes to treat low blood sugar, and also some protein snacks like nuts, beef jerky or cheese,” says Chisholm.
- Stay hydrated. “Plain water is the best way to do that,” recommends Chisholm. Carry a refillable bottle to fill at water fountains located throughout each park.
- If your child needs immediate assistance, don’t be afraid to step to the front of the line or use the handicapped entrance in order to reach food or other help quickly.
- In the event of a medical emergency, locate the nearest Disney cast member and call 911.
Disclaimer: The experiences and suggestions recounted in these articles are not intended as medical advice, and they are not necessarily the “typical” experiences of families with a child who has type 1 diabetes. These situations are unique to the families depicted. Families should check with their healthcare professionals regarding the treatment of type 1 diabetes and the frequency of blood glucose monitoring.
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