True North: Navigating the Diabetes Path

Posted by Rachel Hemond on Wed, 07/08/2015 - 11:00 in

Note: For a newly diagnosed Type 1 diabetic, learning to manage the disease is a seemingly endless loop of needles, measurements and dietary adjustments. Unwilling to mold her life around her diabetes, Rachel Hemond, now an 18-year-old Acton, MA resident, forged ahead with her dream to spend five months in the Vermont wilderness. Using the Omnipod System, and with the support from a network of doctors, family, and friends, she was able to manage her diabetes despite record low temperatures and a serious dislike of downhill skiing. But even more than that, she was able to strike a balance between accommodating rogue blood sugars and living an adventurous, fast-paced life. This is the first of a 10-part series of blogs Rachel wrote about her experiences with the Kroka Expedition Program. 

Sitting on a bench overlooking the Kroka Expeditions School campus, I tried to focus on the light filtering through the crab apple branches above me, the students moving through the fields, and the feeling of shaded grass against my bare soles. But none of that could untie the knot that had been growing in my stomach over the past few hours.

It was June 2011. Just a little more than a month earlier, I had been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 14. And ever since then, a terrifying question occupied my mind: can I continue with everything I loved to do, from lacrosse to theatre, if I was always preoccupied with carbs and calculations, shots and sugars? I thought I would have to give up, that my life as I’d known it was over.

But, in the midst of my fear, I recalled something one of my endocrinologists told me: “Don’t let diabetes take over; you still choose the direction of your life.”

A few short weeks after hearing those words, I waited in the early summer heat to talk to my trip leader, to convince her that diabetes wouldn’t be a problem on the expedition. But my words would seem like lies, sour in my mouth; keeping diabetes from interfering with my life seemed like an impossible task. How could I not let diabetes dictate my choices? Especially about Kroka, an intense wilderness summer camp and school. I had gone to Kroka for two years prior to my diagnosis, and I clung to it as a thread of continuity and a source of strength.

The woman who would lead my trip that summer arrived and we started to talk. She listened as I explained my diabetes and the shots and tedious calculations that went with it. When I left a few hours later, my guts had untied themselves and we had a plan for my return a few weeks later on a program called Wild Girls.

The trip went smoothly, with 12 girls and three teachers spending two weeks among trees and rivers, laughing and singing. I thrived, but my diabetes was always in the background. I gave myself shots in the meal circles, pulled out my calculator and Post-it notes to estimate my insulin intake. The long-term insulin’s inflexibility made it challenging to be active –paddling or hiking up to six hours per day – and I was always struggling to keep my blood sugars from dropping.

But the other students didn’t care that I had a broken pancreas, or that my fingers were covered in needle marks. We shared a grounded sense of solidity that comes from living in the woods.

It was on that trip that I heard of Kroka’s five month semester program. The teachers talked about traversing mountains on skis carrying heavy backpacks in the winter and floating home on spring-swollen rivers. My fellow Wild Girls talked about students becoming hypothermic and eating frozen sticks of butter to stay alive in the dead of winter.

It sounded perfect; I was hooked. Many obstacles lay before me, ranging from grades to managing my diabetes. But in the coming years, I pushed forward, finding technology and resources that allowed me to conquer the other peaks that lay between me and five months in the wilderness.

(Next: As Rachel grows more comfortable with her diabetes, the path to further adventures begins to clear.)