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Last summer, after a night of tending to her son, Trace, for what she thought was the stomach flu, Jillian (Duneske) Breneman took her boy to the doctor’s office. The situation quickly escalated in alarming fashion.
After a few tests, Breneman received startling news.
“We have to call an ambulance and rush Trace to the ER,” she was told by her doctor.
“I remember the doctor telling me she was going to have to call the ambulance and rush Trace to the ER with lights and sirens like it was yesterday. I was living a true nightmare. I immediately called (her husband) Steven to tell him that he was going to have to leave his shift to meet Trace at the Children’s ER. I broke down immediately. I felt so helpless,” said Breneman, a 2008 Saline High School graduate who is finishing her elementary education degree. “There was an overwhelming amount of fear I felt, I didn’t know what to expect, I just knew that Trace wasn’t doing well and he was getting worse, fast. It’s no feeling any parent or person should ever have to feel. No one wants to see their child sick, but you truly can’t imagine or prepare yourself for the feeling I felt until you’ve lived it.
In a car, with her daughter Ellie, she followed the rushing ambulance, sirens blaring, to the University of Michigan Hospital, where Steven, a 2007 SHS graduate now working as a nurse for the U of M, was already waiting.
Tiny Trace was on oxygen, had tubes in his arms, and he was having difficulty breathing.
“Seeing Trace in the condition he was in truly broke our hearts,” Breneman said. “Steven called me as the ER staff got Trace out of the ambulance and into the ER room, I could hear the fear and sadness in his voice, and I knew Trace wasn’t doing well. We both felt so hopeless, so heartbroken, but most of all, so fearful of what was going to happen next. We wanted answers, but all we could do was wait.”
Jillian and Steve learned that Trace, barely two years old, was a type 1 diabetic.People with type 1 diabetes have lost their ability to create insulin, a hormone required to covert food to energy.
He was in the midst of his first diabetic attack.
Five days later Trace was discharged from the hospital. The Brenemans suddenly faced new challenges in their life.
“As exciting as it was to go back home and begin our ‘new life,’ we can't begin to tell you how terrifying it truly was, and still is,” Jillian said.
There was a lot to learn, and not much time.
“Type 1 diabetes isn’t something that people just grow out of, there is no cure and there is no true ‘controlled’ diabetes,” Breneman said. “If you don’t understand the seriousness of diabetes and the management that needs to take place, you could cause the diabetic to become hospitalized, or even cause death.”
One of the challenges was getting comfortable with sticking their little boy with an insulin shot. They also had to quickly learn the math need to confidently give Trace the right amount of insulin.
“I personally can hardly handle getting a shot myself, so having to give my child a shot multiple times a day is one of the most difficult things to do. It’s not easy for anyone. Steven is a nurse and gives shots to patients on a daily basis, but he will tell you any day that it isn’t easy to give his own child a shot,” Breneman said.
The couple administers insulin shots four times a day. They also prick his finger to check his blood sugar five times a day.
“We have to know if Trace’s blood sugar is above, at, or below his blood sugar target range, and we then need to know which action to follow through with,” Breneman said.
The frequent tests are necessary because there seems to be no rhyme or reason for his blood sugar spiking or falling to dangerously low levels.
The parents watch like hawks over their son’s diet, counting carbs to keep sugars at acceptable levels. They’ve been introduced to the diabetic’s vocabulary – insulin-to-carb ratios, ketones, hyperglycemia, glucose monitors, test strips, insulin pens. November is National Diabetes Awareness month. That’s true of every month for the Brenemans now. Their daily routines have changed. In the morning their first task to check Trace’s blood sugar to see if he needs a quick-acting carb.
“Anytime Trace is going to eat we have to check his sugar, count the carbs he consumes, use his correction factor, as well as his insulin-to-carb coverage to figure out how much insulin he needs, and give him a shot,” Breneman said.
In the middle of the night, they check to make sure glucose levels don’t drop too low.
“If Trace drops below 150 (mg/dl), we have to wake him up and give him some form of a quick carbohydrates, usually apple juice. We then have to recheck his blood sugar 15 minutes later to make sure he is at a safe level,” she said.
The Brenemans home resembles a pharmacy now, she said, with needles, insulin, meters and medical supplies around the home. They travel with supplies, even for short trips to the store, to make sure they’re ready to respond to a diabetic emergency.
The couple has quickly adapted to their new situation. Because he’s a nurse, Steven has a good understanding of diabetes care and management. It gets a little easier for the couple each day, even if they know there may never be a way to completely control diabetes until there is a cure.
“It’s extremely difficult trying to explain to Trace, why he has to get his medicine,” Breneman said.
The Brenemans are proud of the way Trace has handled the ordeal. His strength has even helped the parents adjust to their new duties.
“Trace is the strongest little boy Steven and I know. He doesn’t even flinch when he gets his finger pricked or when he gets a shot. He can do it all with a smile on his face,” Breneman said. “Trace is handling his recent diagnosis as if there is no change in life. We couldn’t be more proud of him, and he has made this new way of life for all of us so much easier by being as strong as he is.”
Living with type 1 diabetes is challenging, but in all other ways, Trace is no different than any other youngster.
“He can do the same things any non-diabetic person can, he can eat the same thing any non-diabetic person can, it just means that from now on Trace will have to get an insulin shot to cover the carbohydrates consumed,” she said.
Jillian and Steven want to ensure Trace continues to do well. The Brenemans, who live in Tecumseh now, are reaching out to the community for help for their son. They’ve started a “Go Fund Me” page in hopes of raising enough money to buy a diabetic alert dog.
“Since Trace is so young, he isn't able to understand what exactly is going on with his body and when his sugar is dropping dangerously low, or spiking too high,” Jillian said. “Diabetic alert dogs use their sense of smell to alert when a diabetic is higher or lower than the range they are trained with.”
Alert Service Dogs, the company they’ve talked with, breeds labs, border collies and poodles – dogs with the ability to sense the chemical change in a person’s saliva when their blood sugars are changing. The training for these dogs is intense. They cost $20,000, Jillian said. There are other associated costs, many of which are associated with the trainer helping the dog acclimate to his new family. The total cost is closer to $25,000.
Since the dog is a service dog, it will travel with Trace wherever he goes. In two years, when he starts school, the dog will go with him.
“This dog would not only bring a sense of relief to Steven and I, but to Trace as well. A dog can alert and sense if a blood sugar is at an unsafe level faster than any meter. Knowing that Trace is heading in a dangerous direction before having to deal with a more severe symptom would be indescribable,” Breneman said. “Having a diabetic alert dog would change our lives forever, in a great way.”