Our Diabetic Life: One Mom & Three Sons with Type 1 Diabetes
As brothers, Luke, Jack, and Ben Schuhmacher share a lot, including type 1 diabetes. But the family seems to take it all in stride thanks to their superhero mom, who finds -- and offers -- support online.
Diabetes Mom Finds Support by Blogging
When people ask Meri Schuhmacher what she does for a living, she sometimes says she's a pancreas. Meri spends much of her days -- and often her nights -- helping three of her four children manage their type 1 diabetes. Max, the oldest at age 17, does not have diabetes, but Jack, 15; Ben, 11; and Luke, 9, do. To make life even more of a challenge, Meri's beloved husband, Ryan, died last year after a six-month battle with melanoma. Meri's blog, Our Diabetic Life, which had given her a sense of community for dealing with her sons' diabetes, gave her the same support when her husband died.
Staying Organized with Diabetes
Raising three boys with diabetes takes dedication. To manage their diabetes, Jack, Ben, and Luke wear Medtronic insulin pumps. A heart-shape glass bowl is the perfect resting spot for the collection of meters and test strips used throughout the day.
Diabetes and Diapers
Jack, the oldest brother with diabetes, fills an insulin pump reservoir in front of a hallway cabinet they call "the station."
When Jack was a baby, Meri noticed how thin he was compared to other babies, who looked round and healthy. She took him to the doctor, who said Jack was fine. He wasn't. Jack was slowly falling into ketoacidosis. Late one night, he got sick. Meri took him to the ER, where Jack had a seizure. The doctors said he was dehydrated.
"Nobody mentioned diabetes, because nobody thinks a baby is going to have diabetes," Meri says.
Later that night, her pediatrician asked if anyone on either side of their families had diabetes. Meri's older brother has type 1. The doctor did a finger stick, and Jack's blood glucose was high. Doctors flew Jack to the University of California-San Francisco to verify the diagnosis, and the couple spent the next three years writing down everything Jack ate and correcting his blood glucose with insulin.
"We never knew what his blood sugar was going to be because he was so tiny," Meri says. Jack was put on a pump, and life went on.
Type 1 Brothers
Ben, left, and Luke, right, share a moment with Lawton, their diabetes alert dog, who is trained to sniff out low blood sugar. Luke was diagnosed at 2 years old, when he kept waking his parents to ask for water -- three times in 30 minutes. "Ryan grabbed my arm. We both knew in that moment that we needed to check his sugar," she says. It was 220.
"There wasn't so much depression as there was determination," Meri recalls. "Jack even admitted that it was nice not to be alone." About a year later, Ben, who was 5, started asking his mom for drinks after a party. Meri tested his blood sugar; it was 179. But later it was normal, then high, then normal.
"In denial, I checked his sugar on and off for a month, hoping I was imagining things," Meri says.
She wasn't. Ben started on insulin the week before kindergarten.
"When Ben was diagnosed, that's when I went into a pretty deep funk. For about six months I was crying a lot," Meri says.
One night she was sitting in bed crying, telling Ryan that life was not supposed to be like this. Moms are not supposed to have three little boys attached to insulin pumps.
"Ryan looked at me and said life is all about finding happiness, and that he didn't think God sent us here to be miserable. We need to find our happiness."
So Meri decided she had better start looking.
Writing to Heal
A stay-at-home mom, Meri started writing on her family's blog in 2009; she and her five brothers and sisters had a place online to swap kid photos and stories. One particularly frustrating day, Meri started her own blog about raising three boys with diabetes. She told a sister-in-law about her blog, who told her about another blog she had read from a diabetes mom. "I had no idea diabetes mom bloggers were out there. I started to read them all."
Writing down her feelings was better than any medicine. "When I started, I had lived 10 years without any outside support. I was drowning, and this blog was my ark; it helped me find dry land."
Meri doesn't plan out what she writes. She posts articles two times a week -- she finds a quiet place, and the words start to flow. "It helps me sleep at night because I don't run things over and over in my head."
The blog became Meri's lifeline in 2011, when an eraserlike mole on Ryan's back was diagnosed as melanoma. Ryan had the mole removed and underwent one month of chemotherapy, "just to be sure they got it all," Meri says. The couple followed up every six months. In February 2012, Ryan told Meri his leg felt weird. He went to the emergency room and had a brain scan. When the phone rang with the results, they heard the doctor gasp. Ryan had six tumors in his brain. The cancer had come back. "I felt like I had been punched in the stomach," Meri says.
Meri -- and Ryan -- turned to God and their diabetes online community for support. Meri blogged about their days, giving updates on Ryan and the boys. Packages arrived from around the world for Ryan, and he would read well-wishers' comments and cry. "It was really healing for him," Meri says. Ryan, so upbeat in life, was the same about facing illness. "He was so adamant that it was going to be OK that we never really talked about death. It just happened so fast." Ryan died September 2, 2012, at home surrounded by family.
How Meri Copes
Ryan is gone, yet his presence fills the house. Family photos line the walls, and Ryan's Disney magnet collection is on the refrigerator. Her sister made three quilts from Ryan's favorite T-shirts, and each rests on a son's bed.
Meri says readers of her blog -- which gets about 30,000 pageviews a month -- always want to know how she's coping. Meri leans on her in-laws for meals and help running the kids to church activities and Boy Scouts. As they get older, the boys are gradually doing more diabetes management on their own.
Still, Meri is always there to help her boys. "The phone can't leave my sight. Ever. Ben and Luke call me around 10 and 12 with their blood sugars and what they're going to eat. I tell them how many carbs to put in" to the insulin-dose calculator on their pumps.
Managing Diabetes at School
Ben and Luke attend the same school, and their teachers know what to do if either boy starts to go low. The boys check their blood glucose twice a day at school. They each have a supply box in their classrooms, and Meri made them cheat sheets to help them remember what to do.
Prayer and Support
"We started family prayer the night after Ryan died. We do it every night before bed. Sometimes we cry, but we also smile and even laugh," Meri says. "I know Ryan is with me -- with us. I feel his presence, and it's an amazing feeling. That's why we are doing so well -- because we know he is here."
Max will be leaving for college soon. He's been tested for diabetes and is in the clear for now. One thing is certain: Meri is not angry. "I think of all this now as a gift," she says. "I could not be where I am without the support and love of the diabetes online community. A lot of people may get down, but I try to spin it as positively as I can."