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Dealing With Diabetes - Students Tackle Tough Opponent
Reading, writing, arithmetic - and blood sugar levels.

Not exactly what every student worries about, but for a pair of Escalon High School student-athletes, keeping their eye on their health is as important as keeping tabs on their studies and sports schedules.

Senior Josh Vandagriff and sophomore Katie Spears both have Type 1 diabetes and have been dealing with it since a young age. Neither has let it stand in the way of what they want to do; Josh is a standout cross country runner and varsity baseball player, while Katie suited up this year for the JV volleyball team, has played travel volleyball and been involved in both recreational softball and soccer.

For the two, balancing everything has almost become routine, so much so that most people at the school don't even know they are diabetic. Both agree, that's the way they like it, and neither looks for special treatment because they are dealing daily with a chronic health condition.

Diagnosed just before entering first grade, Josh Vandagriff said he really didn't know what it meant when he heard the word diabetes.

"I had absolutely no clue what was going on," he admitted. "My mom had started seeing changes in me."

A family friend heard the various symptoms and suggested he be tested for diabetes.

"He had had an ear infection and then we went on vacation, he had some weird symptoms I didn't understand," explained mom Dorothy Vandagriff.

When time came for a trip to the doctor, it was a flurry of activity from there on out.

"It was pretty upsetting, they took him by ambulance to Sacramento and he was in there for a week," Dorothy said. "We had to learn how to do the shots before he was released."

Mixing medicine, preparing syringes, giving shots to their youngster, all became part of the routine for Dorothy and husband Krandall Vandagriff, even as they stayed busy with school and outside activities with Josh and older brother K.J.

"Krandall was really nervous about it," Dorothy said of giving Josh the shots when he was younger. "But now, they've made major improvements."

Josh also took over administering his own medications by the time he was nine, and continues to regulate it to this day.

"I started getting better control over it when I was in seventh grade," the senior explained. "I started playing school sports and I needed to find a way to control it a lot better."

The newfound emphasis on sports helped Josh bring everything into clearer focus and he is very careful today, making sure to keep track of what he eats and having his emergency kit so he can balance his carbs and sugar no matter where he goes.

He still has to take several shots a day but said he has become accustomed to the routine.

He runs cross country and plays baseball, with coaches Rick Heflin and Greg Largent noting that he doesn't put his diabetes in the forefront.

"Most people don't even know he has it," Largent said. "He's very much a professional the way he goes about handling it."

Heflin agreed and said Josh will let him know if he needs to grab candy or a carb drink, but he doesn't let that deter him from a strong work ethic.

"His friends know about it and I make sure every year he tells all his teachers," mom Dorothy added. "The first year, he lucked out, because his first grade teacher was also diabetic and that helped him out. She was very understanding and they would test their blood sugar together."

For Josh, it is something he has always known.

"I'm just a normal teen," he said.

Katie Spears was 8 years old in October 2004 when she was diagnosed with the juvenile diabetes, her parents seeking medical aid after what seemed like the flu degraded into the youngster going ghostly white and vomiting persistently, unable to keep anything down. Her condition deteriorated quickly at a hospital emergency room and she was taken by helicopter to a hospital in San Jose.

"I remember them saying I was like 45 minutes from dying," Katie said. "I remember the helicopter ride."

Mom Jenni Spears said it was very much touch and go early on, with Katie's life hanging in the balance until they got her blood sugar regulated.

"She was in kidney failure, we almost lost her," Jenni said. "Her blood sugar was up around 700 and her kidneys had started to shut down."

Jenni and husband Shane had to go through a quick and steep learning curve before they were allowed to bring Katie home, learning how to test her blood sugar, and give her shots when needed.

"It's like being given a newborn baby but this one comes with directions," Jenni said.

Waiting at home were older brother Kristopher, then 10, and baby brother Konnor, who was just four months old when Katie was diagnosed.

Katie was on three different medications when she first came home from the hospital and Jenni said there was also a learning curve for her classmates, some of whom were afraid they would 'catch' diabetes from her.

She also pointed to a Family Camp at Sequoia National Park as being a lifesaver for the family, helping them all come to grips with the changes in their lives when Katie was diagnosed.

"It really saved us," Jenni said, admitting to being emotional about the camp even today. "They make you feel normal."

Counting carbohydrates, making sure to balance the carbs with sugar, all became just part of the daily routine. As Katie has grown older, she has switched to an insulin 'smart pump,' which helps keep her blood sugar regulated.

"I really can tell when I'm not feeling well," Katie said. "I have to check my blood sugar. If it's too low, I eat."

She doesn't wear the pump on the volleyball court or in the water, otherwise it is on all the time. She does have to switch it out every three days but said it is much better than having to give herself shots on a regular basis.

"I don't really see myself differently, it's just one more thing I have to handle," Katie said. "I try not to let it get in the way and I have strong, supportive friends."

Coaches Teresa Williamson and Kayla Kootstra have worked with Katie on the volleyball court and both said they admire the way she has dealt with the diabetes. Her schoolwork is a very heavy load this year, which has brought added stress, and Jenni said they plan to modify that somewhat, reducing the number of AP courses because the stress does have a negative effect.

Otherwise, Katie plans to forge ahead with club activities, sports and fun.

"I'm pretty okay with doing things where I push myself," the sophomore admitted. "I even ran a half-marathon."