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Spirit: Remembering What Matters

Pump n' Roll: A New Spin on Diabetes

By Naomi Mendelsohn

"I like to think of adolescence as a time of secrets and privacy. Unfortunately, there are very few secrets in the world of diabetes."

Like millions of teens across the country, Sara, Colleen, Brittany and Sara Ann are huge fans of the "boy bands" like N' Sync and the Back Street Boys. Sara loves to go to the mall with her friends. Colleen likes to sleep in. Sara Ann wants to be an obstetrician or a pediatrician and Brittany, well, Brittany has a lot of options.

"I want to be an actress, a singer or a kindergarten teacher," says Brittany. "Or an endocrinologist."

While endocrinologist might be an unlikely career choice for most 13-year-olds, Brittany has spent much of her life around the physicians who help her take care of her diabetes.

"I was diagnosed with diabetes when I was two," says Brittany. "And I got my pump when I was 10."

Brittany, Sara, Colleen and Sara Ann all have juvenile diabetes. The illness requires vigilant care, a strict diet and, for most people, several insulin injections every day. But each of these girls has given up their daily shots in favor of an insulin pump, a small device that automatically pumps insulin into the body.

And they like their pumps enough to sing about them to audiences nationwide.

Rockin' for a reason

Collectively, Brittany, Sara, Colleen and Sara Ann are known as The Pump Girls, a teenage rock group that sings about boys, parties, diabetes and insulin pumps.

"We're the Pump Girls in a pump world. We can dare, go anywhere. Pumpin' is so neat, it makes shots obsolete...It's plastic, fantastic. It comes in blue and charcoal too. Shots stink. Pumps think. Any time we want to, we can be impromptu..."

An all-girl band modeled after the Spice Girls, the Pump Girls have a manager, their own CD and a tour-roster worthy of any regular MTV band. They've been taped for the Today show and will soon be filmed for an Extra segment. Not bad for a couple of teens who got their start at a winter retreat for kids with diabetes.

"It all started as a skit from the song I'm a Barbie Girl," says Sara. "We've been together for a year and half now."

By going public about their own experiences, the Pump Girls try to normalize a life with diabetes for other kids. And, as the girls can attest, the rigidity of diabetes management can turn one into an adult really quickly.

"When I would go out with my girlfriends to a shopping mall, I used to have to excuse myself so I could give myself a shot of insulin in the bathroom," says Sara. "And then I'd have to wait to see if I had enough insulin to eat. I felt bad because my friends had to work around my schedule. Now I can sit at the table, push a button right there and get my insulin right away."

Not only do pumps offer a world of convenience for its users, it offers kids a chance to be spontaneous, off-the-cuff, and, well, children.

"We were all on injections before the pump came along," says Sara, 15. "The pump allowed us to be kids again."

Adolescent angst

"For kids with diabetes, there's an awful lot of pre-planning that goes into just getting out of the house," says Cindy Pasquarello R.N., a pediatric and adolescent nurse specialist at the Joslin Center in Boston(MA). "The pump gives back the flexibility to make decisions on the spot. But pump therapy is a lot of work. They still have to do four to eight blood sugars a day. They still have to program the pump."

The hardest part for some adolescents caring for their diabetes is trying to fit in when your diabetes makes you feel like you stand out.

"I like to think of adolescence as a time of secrets and privacy, " says Pasquarello. "Unfortunately, there are very few secrets in the world of diabetes."

According to Pasquarello, the consequences of keeping secrets can sometimes be dangerous. Pasquarello and other educators often struggle to get adolescents to wear their medical alert identification.

"They won't wear it because they don't want to admit that they are less perfect than their friends," says Pasquarello. "Diabetes carries with it a certain sense of 'I have an imperfect body'. There are kids who are not confident, whose self-esteem is not quite there, who don't share their diabetes with everybody."

The Pump Girls hope to lead by example, showing kids they don't have to be ashamed, or feel alone."We're trying to let people know that there are other people out there going through the same thing," says Colleen, age 14.

And there are. One in every 600 children will develop type 1 diabetes; this adds up to about one million people in the United States.

"Hopefully, we give a message of hope to kids," says Sara. "Even if they don't deal with diabetes, but they deal with something else. Diabetes doesn't control my life. I control it."

Naomi Mendelsohn is a content editor at savvyHEALTH.com.

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