By IAN WILSON
Each season and every year brings its own rollercoaster ride.
New heights experienced and sorrowful depths that leave a mark … these wild swings happen in the batter’s box as well as far out of earshot of the crack of the bat.
As the 2023 Major League Baseball (MLB) season was in its first month and the potential of a fresh campaign offered hope and promise to teams and fans, our family was hit with news that left us stunned.
My son, Kingsley – who was just a few weeks away from his seventh birthday in early May – was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D). This was confirmed after a week that saw him drink water like crazy and lose weight at a rapid pace due to ketoacidosis. On top of that, he was just sick. His eyes were sunken in, his ribs were showing and he had no energy.
A quick trip to a walk-in clinic was followed by an even quicker trip to the Alberta Children’s Hospital via ambulance. A couple hours later, my wife and I were given the diagnosis from a doctor who was himself a type 1 diabetic. In that moment, seeing a healthy and accomplished person deliver this bad news provided some comfort, but our diabetes journey was just getting started.
Kingsley remained in the hospital for a few days as our family underwent our own type of spring training: a crash-course on type 1 diabetes.
It was, needless to say, an emotional time. One that was filled with parental doubt, sadness for our son and his altered future, as well as lingering confusion about how we ended up here. Through all of this, the staff at the hospital were amazing, from the nurses to the doctors to the nutritionists and everyone else who took such good care of us. A few friends that we know who work at the Alberta Children’s Hospital also popped by to lift our spirits during this time. So thank you to all of the outstanding people who went to bat for us and made sure that feelings of gratitude were a big part of the mixed emotions we were feeling.
As for our education – and somewhat similar to baseball, or any sport – there was a whole lingo that accompanied our son’s new world order. Blood-glucose level, A1C, glucagon, basal, bolus, honeymoon phase, hyperglycemia, hypoglycemia, ketones, and insulin were among the words and phrases that entered our lexicon.
We learned of the important dance between insulin (both long-acting and fast-acting) and carbohydrates that takes place in the human body and what can impact that delicate balance.
There were the needles and the finger pokes. The injections with pens are the insulin delivery method we were introduced to, and the pricks to the digits and toes are the initial way we learned how to measure his blood-sugar levels and ensure that they’re in a healthy range. Kingsley, bless his lion heart, adjusted to these multiple daily jabs like a champ. He doesn’t necessarily enjoy the prodding but he grew to accept it.
And there was all the fancy new gear! Advancements for the care of people with type 1 diabetes have come a long way over the years. How blood-glucose levels are measured and how insulin is administered has gone high-tech and we continue to learn about the best use of all of it. There’s the Dexcom and Libre devices that provide continuous glucose monitoring and update parents and patients through apps. The good news is we almost always know what’s happening with Kingsley’s blood sugar. The bad news is this breeds an unhealthy hypervigilance in mom and dad. Any attempts to just put our phones away have been abandoned in 2023.
As mentioned, we use pens to give Kingsley his insulin right now, but we’ll likely eventually move to an insulin pump, which regulates his dosage more effectively.
After we became diabetes disciples, we were sent forth into the world to spread the word and educate the people in our son’s life about his condition. This has been no small feat. Teaching grandparents, extended family, friends, teachers and others about the ins and outs of T1D has been challenging. There is confusion about the difference between type 1 diabetes – an incurable autoimmune disease requiring insulin for survival – and type 2 diabetes, a condition where the body cannot make enough insulin or properly use the insulin it makes. Type 2 diabetes accounts for 90% of diabetes cases in Canada and can be managed with healthy foods, exercise and/or medication.
Much of the teaching is met with a lot of follow-up questions. What’s a good number for his blood-glucose levels? How many carbs should he have? How do I measure his carbs? When is a good time to give him his insulin? Can he have dessert? Some of these questions are easy to answer. Sometimes the responses change a bit, depending on the situation.
In all of this, is the mental and psychological impact of diabetes on our child. There is this added burden out of nowhere that Kingsley must carry. Yes, this is manageable, but his life has changed forever. He stands out now in his second grade class, whether he wants to or not. His relationship with food is different. There are simply times where he has to eat or drink and those choices are not really his. That sucks.
“Well, at least he gets to eat candy when he has a low,” is a common refrain regarding one of his forms of medicine.
I often think of how I was with candy as a kid. Well, I think like many children, I coveted it. I would take my allowance to the corner store and buy as much of it as I could every weekend. Then my friends and I would all chase sugar highs and play like crazy. For better or worse, that candy pursuit is altered for Kingsley. Yes, he gets candy at times when other kids don’t and he still enjoys it. But other children aren’t awakened at 3 a.m. and told to eat a pack of Skittles. Not just told to eat it, he’s told he HAS to eat it. No one wants to be woken up at that hour. No favourite candy makes that palatable. Indeed, such routines are often met with resistance and tears and tantrums. Will he look at Skittles or other sugary treats the same way when he’s 30 years old? Will they trigger awful memories? We’re told that diabetic families often pivot to more healthy eating routines, and I hope that’s true. Surely, there must be some positive payoffs that come with these adjustments.
The overnight lows which demand treatment also hit the parents. Whether it’s a school night or a work night, they cannot be ignored. Other friends with a diabetic child have referred to them as “forever newborns,” a reference to the lack of sleep that accompanies babies. The sleep deprivation is real. You just can’t hit snooze on some alarms.
DIABETES AT THE BALL DIAMOND
So, what does any of this have to do with baseball? Apart from some parallels between sports and real life?
As my daughter, Maya, often points out: “We’re a baseball family.”
That’s true in so many ways. Mom and dad play slo-pitch, or at least we used to, and we love going to baseball games. Our kids both play the game, as well. This year was no exception. Kingsley may have missed a few more games than usual while we were getting the lay of the land on his new health challenges, but the Wilsons remained regular visitors to the ball diamond.
We found some healing at the ballpark, some back to normal, and some enjoyment of what we always like about baseball, from the sun on our face to a mustard-slathered hot do to the sight of the green grass.
Indeed, through our baseball family we discovered another crew – we had connections in this world that also live with and manage type 1 diabetes.
Some of these associations seemed to appear out of nowhere.
At the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) All-Star Game in Okotoks, which I was covering this July for Alberta Dugout Stories, I found a familiar spot beside the home dugout to snap some pictures. Right next to me was a man with another zoom-lensed camera taking photos. He mentioned that he was taking pictures of his son, Eric Rataczak, who I recognized as one of the league’s long ball leaders and a participant in the Home Run Derby earlier that day.
We made small talk. Eric’s dad, Jim, talked about baseball in Minnesota, the home state of the Rataczak family. We discussed the Twins, Target Field, minor-league ball and Eric’s journey in baseball.
At one point, Jim described some health issues that his son was experiencing a couple years ago that the family couldn’t figure out. Eric had been feeling uncharacteristically lethargic. His mother, Joan, who is an oncology nurse, decided to have some tests done and they discovered Eric had type 1 diabetes.
Joan found the two of us talking the next inning and chatted a bit more about the diagnosis and her son. She also prodded Jim to show me his sketch book – as it turns out he’s an accomplished nature artist. Among the sketches was a picture he had done that day of the baseball players at Seaman Stadium.
I was struck by this family, their kindness and how exceptional Eric and his parents were in their own fields. Feeling inspired, I determined I would make it a priority to take Kingsley to one of Eric’s games with the Brooks Bombers to meet the hard-hitting outfielder.
On July 20th, we made a family trek to Elks Field in Brooks, home of the Bombers.
I’d messaged the Jasons – team president Jason Thomasen and general manager Jason Wandler – ahead of time to see if we could arrange for a brief pregame meeting between Kingsley and Eric.
“We will absolutely make that happen,” Thomasen responded.
“Tell him to bring his glove and we will have Eric play catch with him before the game. Anything we can do to help make his day a little brighter, let us know.”
Before the game against the Medicine Hat Mavericks, I brought Maya and Kingsley over to the home dugout and we shook hands and high-fived Eric and made some introductions.
Eric and Kingsley talked a bit about diabetes and their blood glucose monitors. I thanked Eric for making time for our family.
“No problem,” he said. “This is what it’s all about it.”
And he was right. Our difficult summer of adjusting to T1D was made a little brighter and bit easier that night.
Eric played catch with my children while I soaked in the moment and then we settled in to watch some baseball. We had hot dogs and fries and Cracker Jack. It felt nice and normal.
“Who are we cheering for tonight?” Maya asked.
My kids are well aware that I grew up in Medicine Hat, so I think they expected me to say the Mavericks.
“Tonight we’re cheering for both teams,” I replied, although when Eric stepped to the plate we clapped a bit harder.
The game itself provided the fans with their own rollercoaster ride, a back-and-forth win for the Mavs in extra innings.
Then we hit the road, a tired but happy family, ready for the ups and downs of the highway and the highs and lows of this life.