Diabetes Forecast

Family Ties

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Jennifer Chilek (right) with son Evan and her sister, Juliette Miklosh.

When I tell people that my 6-year-old son has diabetes, they usually ask, "Does it run in your family?" They're usually relieved to hear that it does (both my sister and my uncle also have type 1), as if that somehow exempts them from the possibility of it happening to them or their child.

As it happens, we know other young children with diabetes, and only one family besides ours has a known history of the disease. Still, diabetes does tend to run in families, and as the parent who contributed the "problem" gene, I can tell you that there is a lot of guilt. Every time someone asks me that inevitable family question, I inwardly cringe.

But here's what has surprised me: Having a sister who was diagnosed at the age of 8 has given my son and me a ready-made support system. Of course, my sister doesn't have to deal with school, growth spurts, or soccer practice, and my son isn't worried about pregnancy or traveling for work. But we share the problems of trying to manage a maddeningly frustrating chronic illness (our favorite line: "But you have the insulin pump, so that takes care of everything, right?").

My sister was the person I called on that two-hour car ride to the children's hospital two years ago when Evan was diagnosed, the one who understood my fear and sense of loss. She helps me figure out the carb count at our favorite local ice cream stand and commiserates about the craziness of inexplicable fluctuations in blood sugar.

Most important, she is an example to us that you can live a healthy life with diabetes and not let it rule your life. She's a successful, happily married mother who has lived well with type 1 for 26 years. Technology was not nearly as advanced when she was first diagnosed, and yet she is healthy and remarkably free from complications (which, as she reminds me, are not an inevitable part of diabetes). My sister also provides a sense of normalcy for Evan. Children with diabetes often feel isolated, as if they're the only ones dealing with being different. At family dinners, he gets a kick out of doing his blood test as his aunt does hers.

My son is too young to truly appreciate his aunt right now, but I know that as he grows older and takes more control of dealing with his diabetes, he'll be grateful to have someone he's close to who knows firsthand what he's going through. My sister and I have always had a close relationship, and since my son's diagnosis we have grown even closer. It turns out there is a silver lining in the inherited aspect of this disease: It's that many of us have someone in our family who can both sympathize with us and give us hope. It has been a remarkable blessing.

Jennifer Chilek is a nurse who lives in Archbald, Pa. She and her husband, Michael, have three children, Shaylyn, Evan, and Morgan, with a baby boy on the way.

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