Father Knows Best: Raising a Son With Diabetes

When his son was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of nine months, Gary Gilles' life was thrown quite a curve ball. Find out how he learned to step up to the plate.

By Gary Gilles

There are few emotions as potent as the love we hold for our children. Their playful innocence reaches into our hearts, past our adult concerns and preoccupations and reminds us about simplicity. A toothless smile, the infectious laughter from a tickle or a clinging hug are simple yet profound reminders of what's truly important. Our children change us from the inside out, if we let them.

Yet, I have always found change difficult. I like a sense of routine and predictability whenever I can get it. Unfortunately life does not often unfold in very predictable ways.

The diagnosis

The summer of 1990 was a watershed point in my life.

On a warm August evening, my nine-month-old son Ryan began vomiting and showing signs of intense thirst. We initially thought he was suffering from a stomach virus and focused on keeping him hydrated. But nothing would stay in his stomach, regardless of how little he ate or drank. Over the next twenty-fours hours two separate health professionals incorrectly diagnosed his symptoms as teething and influenza. After forty-eight hours with no reprieve, Ryan was listless, labored in his breathing and emitting a fruity odor from his breath. We feared dehydration after incessant vomiting and took him to the local hospital for IV fluids. By the time we arrived in the emergency room, he was nearly unconscious. Fortunately, an alert emergency resident took a blood test. It was then determined that our son, at the tender age of nine months, had diabetes

Upon hearing this diagnosis, I felt a strange mix of relief and fear — relieved to know the source of his problem, but fearful and ignorant about the implications of diabetes.

What does it all mean?

We spent three days in intensive care and seven more in the pediatric unit trying to absorb as much as our tired bodies would allow. We crammed overwhelming amounts of information about diabetes and how to manage it into our heads. But the more I learned the more frightened I became. Every bit of his food had to be calculated and four blood tests and three insulin injections would need to be performed each day, every day. In addition to the rigorous routine that we were about to take on, we learned that diabetes could also cause numerous long-term health problems to the eyes, kidneys, heart and blood vessels.

Our minds were functioning but our hearts were broken. On the fifth day of our round-the-clock vigil at the hospital, I could no longer bear this burden I felt. I was bursting inside with sadness for my son, my family and myself. How would I ever be able to provide all that my son now needed, let alone be a husband, father and provider for my wife and two other children? I acutely felt how unpredictable my world had become.

Our family was being pulled into this vortex of diabetes for the rest of our lives. And I couldn’t do anything about it. Could I accept my son's diagnosis and rearrange my expectations of what I thought parenting should be? Or would I become resentful, isolating myself from the people I loved most to minimize the pain and discomfort of change?

Getting answers and getting through it

My search for an answer ended when I was able to identify my real enemy. I assumed for many months that it was diabetes. I was wrong. The real battle was within me. Ryan's diabetes forced me to face how fearful I was of being unable to control my circumstances Instead of fighting the reality of diabetes, I chose to embrace it along with all of the changes it implied.

It took almost two years for me to reach that point, much longer than it took Ryan. Being only nine months old at his diagnosis, he has no real memory of life without finger pricks, insulin shots and snacks to keep his blood sugar balanced with his insulin. Yet, he looks like any other ten-year-old boy who plays sports, climbs trees and hates homework.

The journey that started ten years ago no longer seems so arduous. My wife and I are gradually turning over more of the daily diabetes management to him. And, thankfully, he is accepting that responsibility because he too has embraced the reality of life with diabetes.

In one very real sense Ryan has been my teacher. He has taught me to face my fear of change, live more fully in the present moment and graciously accept the parts of life that I cannot change. But passive he is not. He has a tenacious spirit, forged to some extent by living with adversity. That same adversity is what I have spent most of my life trying to control and avoid. Now I follow Ryan's lead.

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