During most summer weeks, more than 300 campers are running around UC Davis in bright yellow T-shirts and a few layers of sunscreen for one of the university’s many recreational youth programs. This week, 15 more are forming a league of their own through the campus’s first-ever diabetes camp.
The UC Davis Recreation and Unions Department and the UC Davis Children’s Hospital co-organized the camp, which aims to teach kids ages 6-12 with Type 1 diabetes how to manage their blood sugar levels while maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle. During the five-day session, the small group follows the same schedule as the other camps and participates in everything from tie-dye to rock climbing, all while keeping a close eye on the glucometer.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that prevents the pancreas from producing a hormone called insulin, which converts glucose from carbohydrates into usable energy and manages the body’s blood sugar. Only about 5 percent of people diagnosed with diabetes have this form of the disease, according to the American Diabetes Association.
At camp “T1D”– as the campers colloquially call their group– physical activity, nutritional intake and blood sugar levels exist in a carefully balanced trifecta which, if knocked off-kilter, can result in a medical emergency. For that reason, the camp’s staff includes two registered nurses, two counselors, a dietitian and a physician to keep close tabs on campers’ health. Some of the staff are from the UC Davis Children’s Hospital, where the campers are all patients.
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“For a lot of them it’s the first time they’ve been around this many kids with diabetes, so there’s a lot of teamwork going on,” said Alex Nella, a dietitian with the UC Davis Medical Center who is helping out at the camp this week. “We all [check blood sugar] at the same time, and everybody’s really big on communicating if they’re high or low.”
At least three times per day, Nella and the staff help campers check and record their blood sugar levels with a glucometer, especially before and after physical activity. A child’s glucose level should be above 150 mg before the activity, he said, as it could drop during exercise and put the body at risk for coma or seizure.
Before a game of “nutrition freeze tag” on Tuesday, campers sat on the grass and carefully assessed choices for snack time. Some opted for carbohydrate-heavy items, such as Doritos, to raise glucose before the game, while others stuck with low-carb snacks like almonds or string cheese to keep levels stable. Local grocery chain Nugget Marketssupported the camp by donating “low supplies” such as juice or other fast-acting carbohydrates, which contain sugar but no protein or fat, said Erin Heiser, registered nurse and Certified Diabetes Educator.
Erin and husband Jeff Heiser, senior assistant director of recreation at UC Davis, co-conceived the pilot program in the hopes of building confidence among diabetic youths.
“Some kids have a harder time talking about it than other kids,” Erin said. “We see their comfort level with the disease change – they become more confident in handling it overall.”
Sarah Silsbee, a soon-to-be fifth-grader at the Woodland Christian School, has been learning to manage her diabetes since she was diagnosed at age 6. While she has participated in other UC Davis programs, such as dance camp, she said she is especially enjoying TID because of the other campers she has met.
“They’re all diabetic like me,” said Silsbee. “You can talk about it more and relate to each other. Other people always stand around me when I test – they do that to a lot of people like me.”
The camp also provides opportunities for UC Davis students interested in education and recreation. Wyatt Cuddington, a senior studying international relations and music, is one of 60 student counselors helping with summer camps, and one of two assigned specifically to T1D.
“It’s really awesome because it’s the first diabetes camp here,” he said. “We learned a lot. One of my best friends from back home has Type 1, and I never really knew as much about it as I should.”
This year, the pilot program was limited to 15 students for safety reasons. Jeff Heiser said he’d like to see it expand in future years and split into two groups – one older and one younger – so campers can make stronger friendships within peer groups.
“For them, (diabetes) is the first thing they have in common, and then all of a sudden there are multiple things,” said Heiser. “Their diabetes doesn’t define them.”