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Living, Learning, and Counting Carbs

Growing Up With Type 1 Diabetes Is a Journey for New Jersey Nurse

Emily Ireland enthusiastically pulls up her sleeve to reveal the tattoo just above her inner wrist—a large caduceus with the words “Type 1 Diabetes.”

“It was my first tattoo,” Emily says. “I got it when I turned 18—six years after my diagnosis.”

Emily, 23, of Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, says living with the chronic condition is “a journey, a never-ending journey, where you learn things every day.”

She remembers clearly the exact moment she found out she was diabetic. “I was at the Franklin Institute when my doctor called and told me to go to the emergency room,” she says. The Ireland family of five raced to a nearby hospital and crammed into the small room to meet with the doctor.

Type 1 diabetes is caused by an autoimmune reaction that destroys the cells in the pancreas that make insulin and is usually diagnosed in children, teens, and young adults. Being diagnosed with such a serious illness as a preteen was hard, Emily says. “You want to fit in with everybody. To have something new that no one else around you is dealing with was definitely difficult.” But thanks to a good pediatric endocrinologist and a strong support system at home, Emily got into a healthy care routine.

“My mom and dad were totally in it with me—counting carbs and learning everything there was to know about diabetes,” she says. After a year of insulin injections with a needle, she began using a pump, and her blood sugar levels remained under control. But then came the high school years: growth spurts, athletics, dealing with middle-of-the-night testing, and the pump. “It was all a challenge.”

The challenge continued in college.

“Suddenly, you’re fending for yourself,” she explains. “Mom isn’t there to ask you if you ate dinner or if you’re counting your carbs correctly.” Late night studying, early morning classes, and hospital schedules didn’t help. And then there were the other things that come along with college, specifically “turning 21 and learning how to manage alcohol!”

For most diabetics, college can be particularly isolating because classmates don’t understand the medical issues. However, Emily attended the nursing program at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, and all of her roommates were nursing majors. Recently graduated with her BS in nursing, she says having diabetes strongly influenced her career choice. “I want to be the person that my medical team was for me.”

As she entered adulthood with the disease, Emily had to transition from the pediatric endocrinologist with whom she had started her journey to an adult specialist. At her pediatric nurse practitioner’s recommendation, she sought care from Kevin Furlong, DO, at Jefferson’s endocrinology centers in both Turnersville, New Jersey, and Philadelphia.

“It was hard to switch from a doctor whom I had been with for a very long time, but the first day I walked in, Dr. Furlong took his time and said, ‘Let’s take a moment; I understand that this is a hard thing, but we’re going to get through it.’ He was very welcoming and understanding, and really just made me so much more comfortable.”

Emily says that advances in medicine and technology ease some of the burden of diabetes. She still has to test her blood sugar, but not as often. She talks about her sleek “new 670G insulin pump” the way most girls her age would talk about a sports car. And she credits the guidance of her Jefferson team with helping to keep her A1C (average blood sugar level) to a very reasonable 7.6.

After living with the disorder for more than a decade, Emily has a unique perspective—and some advice for the newly diagnosed. “Make people around you aware of the condition that you have,” she said. “It’s difficult because sometimes medical issues are so personal, but it is so important to have people who can look out for you when you can’t look out for yourself.”

That’s where the tattoo above her wrist comes in. Now one of many pieces of body art, Emily explains that her mother only agreed to let her get a tattoo as a teenager if it had to do with her diabetes. “Since I always forgot to wear my medic alert bracelet, I thought it would be a good idea.”

Emily is aware that there will be challenges in the future—including taking care of herself properly while she is busy taking care of other people as a nurse. But she reminds herself to follow her own advice about living with diabetes: “Realize that you can do anything that you want—there’s nothing stopping you.”