First of series on "Faces of Diabetes:" Breaking lifelong limitations
Oct. 22, 2011 at 5:22 a.m.
Updated Oct. 23, 2011 at 5:23 a.m.
Alyssa Sternadel is sprite-like in appearance and mannerism.
Her soft face, accentuated by large almond-shaped brown eyes and a petite frame, may not look like a poster face of diabetes - but it is.
The 15-year-old's forced way of life resonates with about 10,000 other Victoria County diabetics, as well as 25.8 million other diabetics across the United States, both numbers unforgivingly increasing and not slowing down.
But diabetes advocates are not going down without a fight.
Multiple agencies on the state and national level vie not only to stop diabetes, but reverse it through prevention education and healthier nutrition and exercise programs.
And if America stays quiet, diabetes will continue its upward trajectory to becoming one of the nation's biggest, sweeping epidemics.
Living with diabetes
"I don't remember not being diabetic," said Alyssa, a freshman at St. Joseph High School.
Alyssa was diagnosed as a Type 1 diabetic when she was 3 years old.
Being Type 1 meant she would, for the rest of her life, be insulin-dependent, something she does not like but has learned to deal with, she said.
Alyssa was diagnosed at Driscoll Children's Hospital in Corpus Christi. Her blood glucose registered at more than 300. A non-diabetic blood sugar should be between 70 and 120.
"We were giving her three shots a day, and she didn't understand why," her mother Pamela Younts said. "It was very trying. Very difficult."
Today, Alyssa's everyday routine consists of checking her blood sugar in the morning, during lunch and before bed.
She even sets an alarm at 2 a.m. to check her blood sugar after several hours of sleep because of a seizure she once had when her sugar dropped too low.
Alyssa visits a Corpus Christi endocrinologist every quarter of the year to keep everything in check, including Ping, her insulin pump.
Several methods of injecting insulin exist, from simple syringe injections to injection pumps worn on the abdomen.
Alyssa uses the pump and has even developed a way so that it does not get in her way.
She only uses the pump while she eats so it can measure her sugar and shoot insulin to keep her leveled.
Aside from being diabetic, Alyssa lives a perfectly healthy active life.
Being diabetic doesn't mean she has to stop living, she said.
"I don't see it as something that defines me," she said in a triumphant tone.
Strengthening the fight
Dana Bigham has seen the world of school nutrition make a complete 180-degree turnaround in the past 15 years.
Bigham, Victoria ISD's director of childhood nutrition, has seen cafeteria fryers vanish and be replaced by more fruits, vegetables and other healthy choice options.
"It's changed a tremendous amount," Bigham said.
VISD follows the Texas Department of Agriculture's square meals plan.
The meal plan is something currently being pushed by First Lady Michelle Obama, Bigham said.
The idea is to decrease the increase of childhood obesity, which almost always leads to diseases such as diabetes.
Healthier options did not happen overnight. The transition has been happening since fall 2004.
"We follow all the guidelines," Bigham said. "We try to stay ahead of them."
To put the healthier foods concept in context, about 10 years ago only one bowl of fruit was put out during lunch. By the end of lunch, about half the bowl was left.
Today, six bowls are being put out and almost every fruit is taken, Bigham said.
Other foods have been swapped out slowly but surely over the years.
Whole milk is no longer served; it must be 1 percent and flavored milks must be under 20 grams of sugar. Also, rather than being served a certain meal, students are offered, again, options.
Keeping fats below 30 percent and saturated fats below 10 percent is also an important component of the square meals plan, Bigham said.
But what happens when kids are not at school?
Bigham thinks the idea of healthy eating has carried over into the their homes and community.
"It helps train them to eat the right things," she said.
Exercise programs are also available for students. And with more physically interactive video games coming out for game consoles like the PlayStation 3, Wii and Xbox 360, the fight is definitely on, Bigham believes.
"It's all for the better," she said.
If there is one thing that makes Alyssa weak, it's Sour Patch, a gummy candy.
Because she has her insulin always in check, she is able to enjoy her favorite candy.
This is not the only thing Alyssa is able to enjoy.
She also stays active with regular exercise and plays volleyball for sport.
Inside her bedroom are photos of her and friends and, of course, a closet full of fashionable clothes.
In one corner of her room are several horseback riding trophies, yet another way she keeps active.
"It doesn't affect me," Alyssa said about her diabetes. "It's never been a big deal."
Mom sits across from Alyssa, smiling at her daughter's words.
"Hey," she said, "this is your life and you can't limit yourself. You have to learn about diabetes, you have to become educated and you have to be your own advocate."