LEXINGTON, Ky. (Nov. 18, 2011) -- University of Kentucky student Clifford Naiman sat in his freshman psychology class holding the small black device in the palm of his hand, discreetly under the desk, like many of his classmates who were busy texting on their small hand-held devices.
The professor began calling people out for this non-studious behavior when he looked at Naiman and said, "Would you please stop texting in my class?" Naiman replied, "Actually, I'm testing my blood sugar because I'm a diabetic."
Like the nearly 26 million people in America living with diabetes, Naiman has to test his blood glucose levels on a regular basis to maintain good control. This allows him to know how much insulin to bolus (program) into the insulin pump, a small infusion device the size of a pager that is attached to his body with small thin tubing and cannula.
Naiman, from La Jolla, Calif., was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was 9 years old. In type 1 diabetes, the body does not produce enough insulin, a hormone that helps move the glucose contained in food into cells throughout the body, which use it for energy. The glucose stays in the bloodstream, where it can cause serious damage to all the organ systems of the body. This is why Type 1 diabetics must take insulin in order to stay alive.
Now 20-years-old and majoring in integrated strategic communications with a minor in business, what stands out most about Naiman is not the fact that he is constantly checking his glucose levels, but his boundless energy and enthusiasm for UK, especially when he puts on the familiar blue and white UK cheerleading uniform.
Naiman cheers for the UK men's football team and women's basketball and volleyball teams. Cheerleading is a passion he had since he was in high school, and has gotten most of his inspiration from the "Star Wars" movies. That's right, "Star Wars."
"I loved the Jedi," Naiman said. "They were like Super Heroes. I loved all their stunts and the flipping they did. I took gymnastics in middle school and began cheering all through high school. I wanted to be a real Jedi Master."
Also, Naiman adds with a sheepish grin and slight blush, "I got to hang out with the prettiest girls in high school and I got to lift them up in the air."
He doesn't take all the fun he has tumbling and lifting with his cheer squad lightly though, and in fact, says he feels responsible for the safety of his fellow cheerleaders. Maintaining good control over his diabetes is also not only important for him but for his teammates as well.
"If I have poor control over my diabetes and I'm not feeling well, I'm not just hurting myself, I could hurt one of the girls on the team while I'm lifting them up in the air," he said.
November is American Diabetes Month, an annual event when the American Diabetes Association and other health organizations promote awareness of the disease and the importance of maintaining good control in order to avoid the serious consequences of uncontrolled diabetes.
"It is crucial for a person living with diabetes to maintain tight control over their blood glucose levels," said Sheri Setser-Legg, diabetes nutrition educator at UK's Barnstable Brown Kentucky Diabetes and Obesity Center. "Poorly controlled diabetes can lead to a myriad of complications, many of which are not apparent until they have caused significant damage.
"But if a person is committed to managing diabetes, he or she can lead a long and healthy life. Balancing diabetes in one’s daily life can certainly be challenging but with some basic management skills, an individual can achieve good glycemic control. A balance of a healthy diet, active lifestyle, medication management and regular glucose monitoring are key components to one’s success."
Naiman not only manages diabetes, but also a rigorous schedule of classes, homework, cheerleading practice and games. Throughout the day and especially on game days, he may check his glucose levels up to 15 times a day to see if he needs to eat or bolus.
"Always checking is the key to my success. I may go into practice or a game with a fairly decent glucose level of 130 but with all the intense activity, that level can quickly drop."
Like most college students, he also enjoys hanging out with friends and eating at places on campus.
"I don't have time to make healthy meals for myself so it's often a judgment call when eating at places like Ovids, the Commons or McDonalds," he said "I have to choose foods that are beneficial to my diabetes and to cheering, which is usually higher in carbohydrates."
While all the glucose testing, meal planning and bolusing between classes and cheerleading might seem overwhelming to some, not so much for this Jedi Master. Naiman makes diabetes work to fit into his life and not the other way around. In fact, he calls himself a 'part-time' diabetic.
"If you take full-time control of your diabetes, it shouldn't be your whole life. It's just part of your life. You can do all the things a nondiabetic can do."
That's a message he tells young kids with diabetes that he counsels at Camp Wana Kura back home in California for one week during the summer. Naiman feels a very emotional connection to the young campers and wants them to know that diabetes can be manageable and they can still have fun.
It was at diabetic camp 10 years ago that Naiman met a friend, a teen older than himself, who made a huge impression on him. "He was so cool and you'd never know he had diabetes if you looked at him," Naiman said. "When people look at me, I don't want them to just see me as a diabetic. I want them to see me as a person."
To look at Naiman, it's easy to visualize a Jedi Master. A warrior cheering madly for his Kentucky Wildcats, or a warrior who is conquering diabetes, one day at a time.
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