Jake Will Never Be a Teen Rebel; Discipline, Planning, Restraint - Managing Diabetes and Being a Teenager Are Uneasy Bedfellows, Says Rose Morgan, Whose Teenage Son Jake Was Diagnosed with the Illness Last Year

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), July 25, 2010 | Go to article overview

Jake Will Never Be a Teen Rebel; Discipline, Planning, Restraint - Managing Diabetes and Being a Teenager Are Uneasy Bedfellows, Says Rose Morgan, Whose Teenage Son Jake Was Diagnosed with the Illness Last Year


Byline: Rose Morgan

There are pinpoints of time, probably not so many of them, when you know your life has changed for ever: Friday 16 October 2009, at 10.30am, was one of those moments for me. We sat in the GP's surgery - me, my husband and our 14-year-old son Jake, who, in just four days, had transformed from his chatty, laid-back self into a skinny, exhausted shadow. He'd had flu, but wasn't getting better. That morning he seemed ill in a different way; he was weak and sleepy, and had started being sick after eating or drinking. I think, deep down, I knew something was very wrong because I suggested to my husband that he came to the surgery too.

The doctor asked questions and examined Jake's chest, his throat, all the usual fluey things. But suddenly the diagnostic probing headed off in a different direction, one that felt instantly alarming: was he breathing strangely? (Yes.) Had he been thirsty? (Yes, now you come to mention it.) Going to the loo more? (Jake confirmed this.) Did his breath have a sweet, pear-drops smell? (Yes again.) The GP slipped out of the room and returned with a skin-prick blood-test kit. Seconds later, he looked up from reading the monitor, almost shyly, not wanting to deliver the news: 'Jake has diabetes,' he said. 'He's a very sick boy. We need to get him straight to A&E.' Our boy, our handsome, healthy, witty boy, had a chronic condition, and we couldn't make it better for him.

Juvenile type 1 diabetes, which is what Jake has, is on the increase in the West and nobody really understands why. An auto-immune condition, it occurs when the pancreas simply stops producing insulin, the hormone that allows your body to access energy from food. Without insulin, the glucose in your blood rises, without giving your body any energy. A normal blood glucose level should be between four and seven; when he was admitted to hospital, Jake's was 25. The body begins to provide its own solution, breaking down existing fat for energy. That keeps you going for a while but the side effect is that the body produces ketones - acids which are toxic to the body. Jake's fast breathing was his body's attempt to expel these toxins.

The diabetes had probably started about six weeks earlier, but Jake's flu had kicked it into crisis. This is often what happens. Between 2006 and 2009, cases of children admitted through A&E with the sudden onset of diabetes rose by eight per cent to 3,300. There are 25,000 young people in Britain with type 1 diabetes. Alarmingly, some researchers predict that the incidence of type 1 in under-15s in Europe could rise by 70 per cent by 2020. Casting around for the trigger, beyond a genetic predisposition, they cite environmental factors, diet, viruses - but their explanations are largely conjecture.

Snuffling around the house, Jake had looked thin; now he looked emaciated. That's because he was: he was beginning to starve to death. I felt guilty; I felt I'd failed to spot the telltale signs - the thirst I'd attributed to him being a growing teenage boy; the thinness I put down to lankiness born of a growth spurt. I felt negligent.

By the time we arrived at hospital, Jake was so weak he could hardly stand. A flurry of blood tests, drips and drugs ensued. 'You've been told what's wrong with Jake?' asked a registrar, and she began describing what it meant. This is just the start, she said, of learning about the condition. The message was clear: there was no quick fix; the doctors were gently getting us used to the idea of long-term management.

Jake had been sick again, and dozed off, wrapped in blankets. Severely dehydrated, he was hypothermic; his veins had collapsed, for the same reason. As I looked at my son, I began to sob. The young doctor put her arms around me. 'I know, it's crap,' she said. 'But this is the illest he will ever be.'

And those words, although not comforting, were wise and kind and honest. I'm glad she admitted how it was. …

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