Jennifer was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 10, and it took her nearly five years to get her blood sugar levels stabilized. She was in and out of hospitals during that time, and feeling mopey and tired even on good days. It wasn't until she decided to go on the insulin pump at age 15 that she started to feel healthy and energetic again.
With her newfound fame, Jennifer hopes to raise awareness about the importance of sports and recreation for people with type 1 diabetes. "I am very interested in sharing my story, especially with young people," she says.
CFK's Interview with Jennifer:
Q. So how did you first get interested in softball, Jennifer?
A: Well, I started playing T-ball when I was 5. Then from there I got into softball and have been playing every season since. I must have about 30,000 trophies by now! I tried other sports, too, but softball was always my favorite.
Q. And when did diabetes enter the picture?
A: When I was 10… actually it was two weeks before my 11th birthday. I had lost 25 pounds, so I was really skinny. I was carrying water bottles with me everywhere I went. When my mom took me to the doctor's office they knew immediately what was wrong and sent me to the hospital. I was in intensive care for about a week and a half, and then I had to stay another week to learn how to take care of myself and give myself shots.
Q. What did you do when the doctor told you?
A: Believe it or not, I was just relieved to know what was wrong with me. My mom was trying to be strong, but as soon as the doctor said she was taking it really well, she started bawling.
Q. And after that?
A: It was really hard at first. I didn't want people to know about it. I had two main groups of friends, one from school and one from my softball rec. league. Everybody in the league knew I was sick, but I didn't want anyone at school to know. I had to tell my teacher, of course, so we set up a system where anytime I had to test my blood, I would raise my hand and then pat my head a few times. That way I was allowed to leave class without everyone having to know what I was doing.
It's funny, one of my softball friends used to give me shots when I couldn't do it myself. And everyone wanted to test my blood. I was embarrassed for probably a year or two, but everyone was so interested that I eventually got over it. I realized they didn't want to judge me or make fun of me, they were just curious.
Q. Did having diabetes affect your ability to play softball?
A: Yes, definitely. The first doctor I had didn't really know how to help me. I kept having blood sugars in the 300s, and the only thing he knew to do was increase my insulin dosage. I kept having to go to the hospital every few months. At that point, I was trying to play in five games a day sometimes, and I felt horrible. But I was stubborn, so I played anyway.
Then I switched to a different doctor and my readings evened out a little, but soon they were back in the 300s again. He told me I needed to go on the pump, but I refused. I didn't want a needle in my stomach all the time.
Q. So you never went on the pump?
A: Actually, I did, about a year later. I'd say it pretty much saved my life. My blood sugars finally stopped reading over 300. Before that, I had been in the 300s for about three years and I was up to six shots a day. After the pump, I never went to the hospital again for high blood sugars. And for the first time I actually knew what it felt like to feel good. I could run, eat, and communicate with people again. I was so happy.
Q. And what is your diabetes regimen like now?
A: When I know I'm going to be doing intense training at the beginning of a season, I test my blood sugar about half an hour before I begin each practice, and then again right before. If my levels are okay, I take my insulin pump off, and I always have my orange slices and candy with me in case I start to go low.
I found out my blood sugar usually drops during exercise, so now I eat a snack half an hour before—about 15 carbs and a little protein, like crackers and cheese—and don't bolus for it. It takes time and a lot of testing to find out what will work for you.
When I stop training, my blood sugars rise a little and I need more insulin again. I found that very interesting; it shows that exercise is really important for people with diabetes because you need less insulin when you're active.
During games I leave my pump on, but I still test a lot to make sure I will perform to the best of my ability. I test my blood about five to six times per game.
Q. Are your coaches and teammates supportive?
A. Yes, very. All my trainers, coaches, and teammates in college knew I had diabetes. The coaches had lots of questions at first. They were concerned about my health more than anything and told me I could sit out anytime I needed to, in practices and games, which was a relief to me.
It was funny wearing my pump during games, though. The umpires had no idea what a pump was when I started. I couldn't really hide it anywhere, so every single game I'd get a comment from the umpire telling me I had to take my pager off. Then I'd explain what it was, and they'd get very embarrassed and apologize. My teammates would always joke about it and eventually nicknamed me "Motorola."
Q. For those who might not know what the Ladies' Professional Fastpitch Tour is, can you explain it?
A: Sure. It's a new tour this year. There's a professional softball league in the U.S., and this tour is in addition to the regular season. We will play for on weekends in cities across the nation beginning in May 2005. The schedule is posted online at www.lpfatour.com.
Q. What do you plan to do now that you've finished college?
A: I just graduated in December from the University of Michigan with a Sports Management and Communications degree, and my goal in life is to run a youth recreation center with as many sports and age groups as possible. I enjoyed our rec. center so much as a kid that I want to offer the same opportunities to other kids.
I also can't wait to go home and see my family in Florida. I've been away for about four and a half years for school and softball.
And I'm planning to do more volunteer work with JDRF and other diabetes-related groups. I recently spoke as a panelist at a Diabetes Exercise and Sports Association conference in Chicago, and I had a great time meeting and talking with new people.
Q. What do you like to do when you're not playing softball?
A: My favorite thing to do is spend time with my family, boyfriend, close friends, and relatives, especially since I've been away so long. I'm looking forward to getting to know them again.
I also love volleyball and anything to do with being outside and having fun.
Q. What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment so far in life?
A: I'd have to say moving away from home and being on my own, and being as successful as I have been in school, sports, and life. I pretty much jumped at the chance to play softball away from home, even though I was scared. For the first time, I had to take care of myself and make my own decisions, which made me grow up so much.
I gained a lot of confidence playing softball in Lansing (community college), especially when I broke the homerun record. I realized that I really can be at the top even though I have diabetes. Then I succeeded in going to one of the top ten schools in the nation (University of Michigan) on an athletic scholarship. I am so grateful to have had that opportunity.
Q. What do you hope to share with other people with type 1 diabetes?
A: That they can do anything they put their minds to and nothing can stop them. The mind is a powerful thing. When you're first diagnosed, it seems like the end of the world. It takes time to adjust, but try not to be ashamed of it. Instead, be proud of yourself for overcoming a difficult disease that many people do not understand. And, like I said before, don't be afraid of questions and attention. People are just curious, and they want to learn and help.
Jennifer talked to us for the Spring 2005 issue of CFK magazine.