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Father, son know what diabetes can't do: stop them

Adam Olson carved out a nice local sports legacy, despite managing type 1 diabetes. His son, Nate, was diagnosed with the same disease in 2010, but is a fine baseball and basketball player in his own right.
Adam Olson carved out a nice local sports legacy, despite managing type 1 diabetes. His son, Nate, was diagnosed with the same disease in 2010, but is a fine baseball and basketball player in his own right.

Every parent wants what's best for their kids. What if you had to tell your son he will also deal with one of the worst things that ever happened to you? Could you turn that into a positive? Adam Olson did. He and his son, Nate, share a unique bond through their diabetes.

Sports, life and diabetes. All three have highs and lows, often with little time in between them. In a matter of seconds, the Olsons went from rock bottom to about as close as they could to the top in such a moment.

Adam calls it the hardest day of his life. He and his wife, Stacie, were about to tell their youngest son, Nate, that he was about to enter a lifetime of managing the same disease that had threatened multiple times to take his father’s life.

The first question Nate asked was whether he was going to die.

Adam assured him that he wasn’t, and that he would be just fine. That’s when a low skyrocketed to something at least resembling a high.

“He said to us, ‘Well, then, what’s the big deal?’” Adam remembers. “That made it a lot easier for mom and dad, to hear his reaction. But it was very, very difficult.”

Especially for mom, who, by Adam’s estimation, saved his life 30 times when he had bad reactions to his blood-sugar level getting dangerously low. Despite Stacie’s vigilance, an ambulance and fire truck visited the house several times in the dead of the night to bring Adam back when she couldn’t.

“My wife was completely distraught,” Adam says of the discovery of Nate’s diabetes. “How in the world would she know if he’s going low in the night? That was our biggest concern.

“But the way they do it now, it’s not really a concern.”

Easy dates to remember

Adam was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes over Christmas during his freshman year at Newman Central Catholic High School. About 25 years later, Nate got his diagnosis over Thanksgiving break as a fifth-grader.

“So we don’t like holidays a whole lot,” Adam says. “We’re worried about Easter, but so far, so good.”

Adam remembers vividly realizing something was wrong during basketball practice.

“I always prided myself on being the first one to win every sprint,” he says. “I went one time down, and I had to stop. I couldn’t even run back.”

He took the next day off, but was held in place by the same utter lack of energy the day thereafter. And, despite having great eyesight, he couldn’t read the clock in the gym, so he went to the clinic.

The staff at Sterling-Rock Falls Clinic had never seen a blood-sugar reading as high as Adam’s. It was 620, about six times the acceptable level.

While it didn’t prevent him from thriving in basketball and baseball – he’s a member of the Newman athletics Hall of Fame – it did change the game. And, for nearly 30 years, he took two shots a day: Humulin N, a longer-lasting insulin, and Humulin R, a shorter-acting one.

Over the years, his A1C visits showed his blood-sugar rating to be just a shade over the acceptable 7.0 mark, but what he didn’t realize was the unnecessarily erratic highs and lows he endured to get to that number.

Adam didn’t realize it at the time, but when Nate was diagnosed, the game was about to change again. They would make diabetes a platform on which they strengthened their bond. For Nate, knowing his dad had full understanding of the disease helped buffer the fear.

“It made me feel a lot more comfortable,” Nate says. “I never really knew what he had to deal with when he had it. I just thought he was normal. He’s still the same now, even though I know what he has to deal with.”

After almost a year of waiting for insurance to approve, they both got their insulin pumps.

That was Halloween of 2011.

That’s teamwork

Using the pump is so easy, a freshly turned teenager can master it.

Adam is demonstrating his pump’s interface at the kitchen table. He enters his glucose level – when he checks his levels with his meter, it inputs automatically – and then tells it what food he just ate.

“I tell it I had a Pop Tart – I have a Pop Tart like four tmes a day,” Adam says, “Then it says you need … where’s it at Nate?”

“Up at the top,” Nate assists.

“There it is. It says you need 4.0 units of insulin,” Adam says. “So then I hit ACT, ACT, and it just puts it right into me.”

Welcome to daily life in the Olson household. 

Nate easily recognizes when dad is being “goofy,” as Adam calls it. And reminding each other that they need carbs is a common practice.

“We tell that, probably three or four times a day, to each other,” Adam says. “This is something we deal with every day – in every meal of every day. It’s something that’s with us forever, but it’s something that is so manageable today.”

End justifies means

Nate admits he was nervous.

He needed a subject for his speech, and his parents suggested he talk about diabetes. He went through with it, and it was a hit.

Before that, he was nervous about having a pump, which connects to a port in the stomach and plunges in almost harmlessly when a diabetic needs insulin.

“I wasn’t really excited about having the pump at first,” Nate says. “I just didn’t want to have it on my side and have it with me at all times. But I used to take, like, six shots a day. So now, I like it a lot.”

“The best day is when you forget you even have it on, and for most people that happens,” CGH diabetes coordinator Calli McClain said. “It’s like glasses: When you first start wearing them, it’s awkward. Then, suddenly you’re looking for them, and they’re on your head.”

McClain typically meets diabetes patients when they’re deep into the disease. She met Nate right after his diagnosis.

“Nate’s just a really awesome kid – and Adam’s really cool, too,” she said. “As parents, our job is to worry. But Nate is more practical, whereas we as parents have to think about the long term. Nate’s outlook has always been good, and should remain that way. When you accept it as part of your life, it becomes a lot easier to treat.”

Like Adam, she swears by the pump, as it’s the closest thing to a true simulation of a healthy human pancreas.

The port needs to be swapped out every 3 days, so diabetics have effectively gone from a half-dozen or more shots a day to one every 3 days.

Adam says – “because I have more fat than he does” – he feels about two out of 10 injections of insulin, whereas Nate feels about twice as many.

If it weren’t for Nate’s diabetes, Adam might not feel any of them. Adam dropped about 25 pounds after visiting Bryan Frederick and going on the CGH Lifestyle Medicine instructor’s Truth About Fat Loss Program. Another 25 pounds fell off when Adam and Nate got their pumps.

Adam no longer needed to eat right before he went to bed, for fear of getting dangerously low during the night. Being able to trust the pump’s slow drip is a microcosm of the way diabetes helped him and his son grow closer.

“No question, it helped us form a bond,” Adam said. “And it’s really helped my health. The fact that he got diabetes may have saved my life. In terms of whose health it helped more, it probably helped me more.

“If you have Type 1 diabetes, and you don’t get the pump, you’re silly.”

‘You can do it’

Look out for the Sterling Golden Warrior basketball and baseball teams in the near future.

Nate is just one member of a very talented eighth-grade class at Challand Middle School and throughout the school district.

Emphasis on that phrase: just one member.

“Nate doesn’t feel any different than his peers; he’s a very popular kid, and he gets along with everyone,” Adam says.

Nate was a bit anxious about his story being shared in the newspaper.

“He said, ‘Dad, you want to do this?’” Adam said. “I told him it would be a good story. There’s kids who get diabetes every day in this area. To know Nate – who’s a really good athlete and an all-star baseball player – he might help someone else out who’s young and just got diagnosed.”

Nate and his fellow all-stars made it to the state level in their pursuit of the Little League World Series.

“I just want people to know that we’re normal,” Adam says. “Nate is a good little athlete, and that other kids can know that they can still do everything they did before being diagnosed with diabetes – if you take the right steps.

“You can do it.”

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