College Student With Type 1 Diabetes: What I Fear the Most

This is not my first rodeo. Three years ago I dropped my older son off at college with a mix of excitement and sadness. It took a while to get used to him not parked on the living room sofa, listening to his music while he simultaneously played video games and kept up with Facebook and Snapchat. This should have prepared me for round two, but it didn’t.

In a few days, my younger son will move into his freshman dorm. Once again I struggle with all those wild emotions that rage through parental hearts as they send their children off into the world: pride, hope, hesitation, fear.

Concerns about college students with Type 1 Diabetes

He will adjust to his new life and I will adjust to mine, except that this time there is a wrinkle. It is not that he is my last child, though that has its own set of heartaches. It’s not that he’s going far (he will only be 75 miles away). This time, in addition to gathering all the essential necessities for dorm living, hoping he will like his roommates, lecturing him about making time to study – this time I also pray he will stay alive.

My son has Type 1 Diabetes.

Because of the wonders of modern medicine, he is able to manage this once fatal disease. However, for the first time in his life, he will not be doing it under my roof, where I can gently remind him to check his blood sugar or help him figure out the carbs for his dinner or ask if he took his Lantus (long acting insulin). He does much of this now with a great degree of independence, but I am able to watch him for unusual behavior due to low or high sugars, or worse, not waking up because his blood sugar dropped during the night.

And that’s what gets to me. All Type 1 Diabetics live with the reality that their blood sugar can go dangerously low while they sleep and they may never wake up. When my son’s numbers drop, he feels it. It wakes him up enough to eat something and get his numbers back to normal. Continuous Glucose Monitors have done much to help those who struggle regularly with this, but it doesn’t happen often to my son and he doesn’t want something attached to him that is still not reliable enough to forego the multiple finger pricks each day that measure his blood sugar. He is 18 and old enough to choose his own treatment and I must allow him to make this choice.

My son also has Celiac Disease, another autoimmune disease that leaves his intestines unable to process gluten. He is mostly asymptomatic, but even though he has few outward reactions to eating gluten, inside his body gets ravaged and could lead to a host of serious medical conditions. With the growing choices for gluten-free eating, this isn’t insurmountable. But he also needs to be sure that his food is not contaminated (cooked on same surfaces as gluten, processed with the same utensils, etc.) Fortunately, we have been in touch with his dining hall chef who assures us that there will be plenty of safe choices available and his gluten-free food will be prepared separately.
That allays some of our fears, but not all.

Like all college students, he will be faced with the pressure to drink and participate in risky behaviors. Most parents dread the inevitable trial and error their children will undergo with partying. Even after serving two years on his school’s orientation program that warns about the dangers of alcohol poisoning, my oh-so-responsible older son has succumbed to the occasional one-too-many.

But his brother faces consequences far more dangerous than a night spent praying to the porcelain god. He knows drinking is particularly hazardous for him (alcohol lowers blood sugar and can mask that awareness of it that he counts on). I trust him to use sound judgment, but there is that nagging worry that makes my breath catch in my throat and my heart skip a beat.

What if he experiments and it goes wrong? Will his new friends look out for him? Will they ask him if he’s tested his blood sugar? Or will they encourage him to drink more? Will they leave him to “sleep it off” as if he were just drunk – not realizing that he could die?

This is where my faith in other parents must come in. I must believe that not only have they talked to their children about studying, eating healthy, getting enough sleep and watching over their shoulders as they walk home alone at night, but that they have also imparted to them the importance of community. Our children have repeatedly listened to our concerns for their well-being as they leave their safe and familiar homes, but do they know that being an adult requires looking out for others, too?

I would hope that my son has a little extra compassion for those kids who can’t eat peanuts and might go into anaphylactic shock if they’re even near nuts. Or the ones who hyperventilate with panic at an approaching exam. Showing respect for people who might be different or have unique problems is not a value that is learned overnight, but our children are still listening to us. We need to continue to teach them that caring for the world around them is as much a part of growing up as is living on their own and earning that diploma.

As much as we wish we could, we cannot control what happens to our children after they leave our nest. We push aside the frightening scenarios because to dwell on them would certainly wreak havoc on our nerves. When you add a permanent, incurable disease like Type 1 Diabetes to the mix, that fear is magnified exponentially and is not so easily ignored.

And so we put our trust in strangers. How blessed we will be if our kids find these understanding friends, yet how much easier that would be if all of us, as parents, reinforce that golden rule.

I am so proud of how my son has handled his burden – correctly dosing his medication multiple times a day just to keep his body functioning, and foregoing the pleasures of hot dogs and pizzas that are staples in most teenage diets. It is my hope that he takes to heart the importance of taking care of his health, that he shows that same level of care for those around him and that they in turn look out for him. And I’m holding onto the saddle and saying a prayer that this rodeo doesn’t make the last one look like a pony ride in the park.

Related:

Beyond Type 1

Patricia RobinsonPatricia Robinson is the mother of two almost-men (though they will always be her babies!) She is a high school Special Ed Instructional Aide and is in the final stages of writing her first historical fiction novel. She resides in Southern California with her husband, dog and  soon to depart youngest son. Find her on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. 

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