A VIGILANT LIFESTYLE
LOCAL FAMILY THRIVES AGAINST TYPE 1 DIABETES
Mother and daughter Jennifer and Emily Mittleman of Woodcliff Lake learned to thrive and lead happy and active lives while managing their disease
Jennifer Mittleman was 11 years old when she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Previously known as juvenile diabetes, Type 1 occurs when the immune system destroys beta cells in the pancreas, which produce insulin. She remembers being hospitalized for two weeks and practicing giving shots to an orange, so that she would be able to give herself insulin shots.
“People did not know as much about the disease back then,” Mittleman says. “I was not under good control when I was younger.”
That changed when she was 16 and met Alan, who is now her husband. His father was a Type 1 diabetic, and he taught her how to take better care of herself and to monitor her blood sugar more frequently. Eventually, when Mittleman was in her 20s, an endocrinologist recommended that she start using a pump, which offered much greater flexibility. With a pump, there was no need to follow a strict schedule for eating, activity and insulin injections.
When Mittleman became pregnant, she became incredibly vigilant, testing her blood sugar levels 12 times a day. Although her levels were great, her pregnancies were complicated. She was relieved and thrilled that her babies were “born as healthy as can be.” That being said, Mittleman monitored her children for signs of the disease, which has a genetic component.
Her son, Jordan, 17, does not have Type 1 diabetes, but when her daughter, Emily, was 11, Mittleman diagnosed her with the disease.
“The doctors at Hackensack [University Medical Center] were amazed that I diagnosed her myself at such an early stage –
LIFELONG DIAGNOSIS Jennifer Mittleman recognized that her daughter, Emily, also had Type 1 diabetes when she was just 11 and the disease was still developing.
she was in the honeymoon phase, and her pancreas was still producing insulin,” Mittleman says. “The doctors advised her to start using a sensor, and I went on the sensor at the same time.”
The “sensor” is a continuous glucose monitoring system that measures glucose levels in real-time throughout the day and night. A tiny electrode is inserted under the skin, and that measures glucose levels in tissue fluid. The electrode is connected to a transmitter that sends the information to a monitoring and display device.
How did Emily react to her diagnosis? “She didn’t bat an eye,” marvels Mittleman.
She was diagnosed in March. In June, it was determined that she needed some insulin.
“She went on the pump, and two weeks later, she headed off for seven weeks of summer camp by herself,” Mittleman says. “I made her practice changing the pump six times the night before she left. I asked her, ‘Do you feel comfortable?’ She answered, ‘Of course I do.’”
From the beginning, Emily took control of her diabetes.
“After I went to some doctors and they explained to me what was going on, I got very interested in diabetes. I had seen pictures of what happens to people when they don’t take care of their diabetes, and I really did not want that to happen to me,” Emily says. “Right when I was diagnosed, I tested my blood sugar five times a day and I tried to not eat too many carbs. I remember having all the doctors tell me what a diligent diabetic I was.”
Emily is an accomplished athlete – playing varsity basketball as a freshman at Dwight-Englewood. The family also lived in Florida for a year while Emily trained at a high-performance tennis academy. She still plays tennis several times a week, often after practice for whatever team sport is in season. In addition, Emily competes in track and is an avid skier.
Although exercise has tremendous benefits for those with diabetes (as well as almost everyone else), it can be slightly more complicated for a young athlete who has to constantly monitor their blood sugar level. However, Emily, not surprisingly given her optimistic and adventurous nature, has managed to look on the bright side.
“There are some disadvantages to having diabetes and playing sports because I don’t like having special accommodations made to me. Whenever my blood sugar gets too high or too low, I have to sit out from the sport I’m playing,” Emily says. “At the same time, there are advantages too. I have realized throughout the years that when I exercise, my blood sugars become much better and more controlled. Also, I have faced lots of obstacles with diabetes which has taught me lots of lessons, like how to cope better with stressful situations, and I implement those lessons I have learned into sports.”
The mother and daughter duo rely on each other. “If we absolutely had to, we could share a pump,” Mittleman says.
The pump and the sensor have made managing diabetes easier for both mother and daughter, and technology is always evolving. “We just got connected to CareLink, an app which displays the blood sugars on my phone,” Mittleman says. “I can send it to the doctor from my phone.”
Still, Mittleman says she is filled with “amazement and awe” at seeing how her daughter has taken the disease in stride.
The family is active in the JDRF (formerly known as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation), and Emily participates in its fashion shows, which raises money for the organization. The first show was a turning point for Emily.
“I remember standing in the dressing room with 15 other girls all rushing to get ready, and at one point everyone was trying to figure out where to put their pump so you can’t see it through their dress,” Emily says. “This was the first time all the girls with me were trying to figure this out, considering all of my other friends don’t have to worry about this. I felt like I belonged with everyone in that room, because at one point or another, we’ve all experienced the same problems with diabetes.”
Mittleman notes that even her son “is in tune with the symptoms of low blood sugar,” and has been known to bring her a glass of juice if he notices she needs it. While their ability to flourish is not because of the disease, it is surely in spite of it, and they are an inspiration to others.
Emily has advice for other young people diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes: “It’s not the end of the world. You hear the doctors saying all of the things you can’t do now – like you can’t eat whatever you want, you can’t exercise without constantly checking your blood sugar, and more. But you can handle this. You have your parents to help you, but you have to remember that at the end of the day, it’s going to be you that you depend most on. You’re the one that is going to be testing your blood sugar five times a day. You’re the one who has to want to be a good diabetic. Not your parents, not your doctors – you. They are always going to be there to help you out, but you’re the one that is most important in controlling your diabetes.”
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GOING STRONG Emily Mittleman hasn’t let Type 1 diabetes stop her from playing a variety of sports at a high level, including tennis.