Wednesday, February 4, 2009


I know a little girl, ten years old. She bounces when she’s excited. No mild bobbing, Aliza clears the ground by several feet when she’s got good news to tell me. She is a student in my class. She greets me in the mornings with a bright-eyed smile and a spirited hello. She loves school! Loves working hard, loves helping others. This is a kid who has a total zest for life. Every new thing is an adventure. She exudes a passion which rubs off on her classmates. You should see Aliza on stage, performing improv. This kid can light it up. You know when Aliza is in the room. You feel her presence.

She’s a mighty package in a little body. In fifth grade, I bet she’s barely pushing sixty pounds. But the hair, you can’t miss the hair. Aliza is blessed with a shock of red locks. Picture little orphan Annie given free rein with a bottle of spritzer. Aliza’s is all natural. It’s wild hair and it bounces with her, giving her the look of a giant pom-pom on a pogo stick.

In every way, she’s the epitome of a normal kid, a fun-loving, creative, singing, dancing, fort-building, regular little girl. Except she wears a small device on her torso and is rarely seen without a green purse embossed with ornamental flowers.

In October 2007, Aliza was diagnosed with Type 1 or Juvenile Diabetes. Her body's immune system malfunctioned, destroying the cells in her pancreas which normally produce insulin. Insulin helps the body move the glucose from her food into cells throughout the body, which need it for energy. When her pancreatic cells were destroyed, she could no longer produce insulin. So the glucose stays in her blood, where it has the potential to cause major damage to all the organ systems of the body. Like all diabetics, she must receive insulin from another source.

Aliza lives with this disease continuously. She won’t grow out of it. It won’t go away. Every day, several times a day, Aliza uses a small spring-loaded needle to poke through the skin at the ends of her fingertips. She measures her blood glucose levels constantly. At any moment, if she were not keeping an eye on her body, her blood could contain too little or too much glucose, resulting in serious complications.

She has to think about what she eats and how much she exercises in relation to the insulin levels in her body. A mini-computer, which is part of the pump attached around her middle, controls the amount of insulin entering her body. She has to think about her disease all the time: before she starts her day, before a snack, before a meal, before recess, before P.E. class, before a shower, before bedtime, during the night. And it all starts all over again the next day.

I talked to her parents on the day she was diagnosed. Imagine the shock, the fear, the overwhelming task of trying to come to terms with how this disease was about to affect her family’s daily existence and their future. Aged nine at the time, it was hard to imagine this new life for Aliza. How would she manage to do everything she needed to do, learn everything about the disease she needed to know, get through her school days, get through the night?

As her teacher, I wasn’t sure how we were going to incorporate all of the new routines into our day. How were we going to manage if her glucose levels fell outside of the normal range? I figured we’d figure it out as we went along. None of us counted on the one thing that has been clear from the start – the strength of Aliza.

This little girl does it all. She knows her body – she knows when she feels low or high. She tests her levels by herself, she knows how to work the pump and adjust her insulin delivery. She is fully aware of the carbohydrate and sugar contents of everything she eats. She is calm and masterful talking to both kids and adults about the disease.

In fourth grade, before she got the pump, when she was still receiving twice daily insulin shots, I took my class on an overnight trip to the mountains. This was the first time that she was to receive insulin without her parents’ direct involvement. I learned everything I could about how to administer the shots. I wasn’t needed. Aliza had it down pat.

Aliza recently attended a dinner for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. She came home that night armed with awards. Aliza had put together a team to walk in the annual JDRF Walk to Cure Diabetes. More than fifty people walked with her. Her infectious joy helped make the walk a fabulous success. Together her team raised more than $16,000. The organization recognized her as an outstanding first-time participant.

15,000 new cases of Type I Diabetes are diagnosed every year in Americans under the age of 20. There is no confirmed reason why the disease strikes one person over another. People with diabetes succeed in every walk of life, from corporate boardrooms, to professional sports arenas, from the halls of Congress to the ivory towers of academia. The history of diabetes is filled with incredible stories of people managing their disease and living out their dreams.

Aliza is doing the same. Pound for pound, her strength is remarkable.

Photo - Aliza at the JDRF Awards Dinner with former NFL star and fellow diabetic Jay Leeuwenberg.

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