People stared. People gave us that "I'm so sorry" glance. People with whom we weren't friends or with whom we hadn't spoken in a while suddenly started talking to us and asking questions. We couldn't walk through the school without being stopped repeatedly by people who wanted the inside scoop and/or who wanted to share their sympathy. Some were nosey, but most were sincere and genuinely concerned.
What felt strange, and often annoying, at the time actually ended up helping us. We came to realize that the more people who knew about Jack's condition, the safer he would be. We knew that, if his blood sugar dropped so low or soared so high that he seized or entered diabetic ketoacidosis or encountered some other life-threatening, diabetes-related or general problem, people would know to get him help immediately. They wouldn't just walk by and think, "Oh, look, he was so tired that he fell asleep on the playground. Isn't he cute?" They wouldn't assume anything. They would make sure he was okay.
Granted, his teachers were all over him. They watched him like a hawk. No passers-by would notice him motionless on the playground, because his teachers, whom we'd trained in diabetes management, would have gotten to him first. Still, there was a comfort in knowing that should something freaky ever go down, other parents, teachers and school staff members were informed and would rush to Jack's aid. Everyone was on heightened alert when it came to Jack.
The following year, when Jack entered kindergarten at a new school, where we were relative unknowns, we decided it was important to inform his classmates' parents about his condition (in addition to informing and training all school personnel with whom he'd come into contact during the year).
We wrote a letter that the teacher sent home with the kids. We also spoke at the class back-to-school orientation.
We thanked people for helping us help Jack. We explained what diabetes is. We suggested how they could talk to their children about the disease. We described what their children would be seeing in school, like watching Jack test his blood sugar and drink juice at his desk when it wasn't snack time. We assured them that their children could befriend Jack without worry, because diabetes is not contagious. We asked that when they sent in treats for the class, that they please provide nutritional information, when possible, so that we would know the carbohydrate count, so that Jack could be like every other kid in the class and enjoy the treat (blood sugar level permitting, of course). We also asked that they never feed Jack anything at a class party without checking with us or the teacher first.
People responded with tremendous warmth and compassion. We received comment after comment and email after email from parents thanking us for informing them and offering to help in any way they could. Their support extended throughout the year, and these other parents not only helped us to keep Jack safe, but helped Jack feel like just another kid in the class. Many families even joined us in the JDRF Walk to Cure Diabetes.
When Jack entered first grade, we did the same thing. We sent home a letter and spoke at orientation, and once again, we found ourselves the recipients of kindness. Jack enjoyed another great school year, every day returning home safe and sound with watch dogs looking out for him all over the place.
Just last week, Jack returned to school as a "big" second grader. Despite our positive past experiences, Gregg and I debated what to do. "Do we really need to send home another letter to the class, and do we really need to speak at orientation again? Are people sick of us talking about Jack and his diabetes?"
We went round and round, talking so much that we were sick of us talking about Jack and his diabetes.
Then we saw the class list, and we learned that none of Jack's friends would be in his class this year. He would be in a class with all new kids. That made our decision easier. We knew we had to talk to the parents and distribute our intro letter.
So, two days ago, I received an email from the parent of one of Jack's classmates. She wrote:
J is bringing in chocolate donuts from Dunkin Donuts to share with the class for his bday tomorrow. I thought this link might be helpful to you for Jack since the box is not labeled with the nutrition info. Thanks and have a great day!
Her email made me teary-eyed. Here was yet another thoughtful parent helping us help Jack. When you ask for help, people give it. When you don't ask, you get nothing (usually). In this case, we were given not only a heads up about the treat, but the nutritional information as well. So nice! So helpful!
I tend to be a private person (I know, I know, that seems strange coming from a mom who's putting the details of her life out there on the Internet for all to read), but when it comes to Jack (and his brother and sister), I'm all about ensuring his safety and happiness and trying my hardest to give him the best life possible. If that means telling the entire school community about his diabetes, then so be it.
I'll be sending home letters and speaking at orientation year after year.
If you're another D parent and would like a copy of the letter we've sent to Jack's classmates' parents, leave me a comment with your email address or send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll be happy to share it. I want your D kids to be safe and happy, living their best lives, too!