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Commentary: Diabetes couldn’t block CdM grad from Olympic gold

Imagine being told at age 10 that you have Type 1 diabetes, that you have to monitor your blood sugar, inject yourself with insulin four times a day and become obsessive about everything that goes into your body.

Some of us would let the disease control — and ruin — our lives. But like the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and as a doctor and a mother in Newport Beach, I’ve been lucky enough to meet some incredibly strong kids.

Type 2 or “adult onset” diabetes gets a lot of attention these days due to its link to the alarming rise in childhood obesity.

But Type 1 diabetes is not caused by junk food or lack of exercise. Affecting 1 out of 11 people, Type 1 diabetes can be brought on by genetics, an autoimmune disorder, or even exposure to certain viruses.


Unlike Type 2 diabetes, insulin is always necessary for treatment, leaving kids having to contend with this complicated, life-threatening illness their whole lives.

A diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes activates families, friends and the medical community with an intense focus. If blood sugar isn’t properly managed, diabetes can lead to hospitalization and, over the long run, amputation and even death.

So schedules are compulsively maintained, children and their parents become hyper-organized and prepared. Every morsel that passes a child’s lips is considered, and even young friends learn not to take it personally if someone declines a piece of birthday cake.

Kids have to develop the discipline of Olympic athletes just to stay healthy. Is it any wonder, then, that some, like Olympic gold medalist and former Corona del Mar High School volleyball player Kevin Hansen, go on to actually compete on the world stage?


I don’t have the statistics on the number of Type 1 diabetics who go on to become wildly successful, but I have definitely seen my share of kids who become so adept at managing their conditions that they excel in many other aspects of their lives.

Hansen is one of them. On Friday, our hometown hero will be back in Newport Beach to retire his No. 4 jersey before the Sea Kings game against Newport Harbor High School.

The former Corona del Mar setter has a natural athleticism that was nurtured, in part, by his regimented lifestyle. But even Hansen was surprised at his Olympic debut in Beijing in 2008 to meet many fellow Olympians contending with the same chronic condition.

If you have Type 1 diabetes, you don’t have to go to China to make those connections. Hoag Hospital offers the Herbert Family Program for young adults with Type 1 diabetes through the Mary and Dick Allen Diabetes Center. The program empowers young adults to learn from each other and live life to the fullest. They learn, in a fun, peer-to-peer environment, how their disciplined way of living can help shape them into a better version of themselves.

This is not to romanticize the condition. Type 1 diabetes is an enormous problem that requires an entire community’s support. We saw this recently during the Toshiba Classic golf tournament in Newport Beach, which raised more than $1 million for the Mary and Dick Allen Diabetes Center.

And we see it each time parents and friends help a child face this life-threatening chronic condition with bravery and resolve.

In Hansen’s case, he heard doctors tell him at a young age that “athletics would be difficult.” Some would hear that and not bother trying. Others, already facing the enormous challenge of managing a life-altering illness, hear those words and say, “Oh, yeah?”

Dr. ALLYSON BROOKS practices at Hoag Hospital and lives in Newport Beach.