Cameron Periera has been playing hockey since he was 3 years old and isn’t about to let his recent diagnosis with diabetes slow him down
Joey Carney’s teammates thought he had an iPod on his leg. It would’ve made sense. He was in the locker room before a game. He could’ve been listening to music to get ready, but in this situation, that simply wasn’t the case. Joey was checking his blood sugar levels and adjusting with his insulin pump, a process he’s become quite familiar with since he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes last August.
For any athlete, this diagnosis quickly becomes the balancing act of all balancing acts – with many different facets. There is a balance between managing the disease while not letting it run your life. Then there is the physical balance between blood sugar levels, insulin and exercise and the effects it has on the body. It’s a struggle that requires a lot of attention, discipline, and a desire to persevere. Finding that delicate balance is done by trial and error.
“There are no secrets,” says Bob Clarke, who won two Stanley Cups and three league MVP awards in a Hall of Fame career with the Philadelphia Flyers. “I’m no different than anyone else with diabetes. I take insulin. I watch what I eat. I have to check my blood the same as anybody. If there were any secrets I’d love to pass them on, but I don’t have any.”
The good news is that with experience, it gets easier. Carney has learned what routine works best for him and has adopted a few tricks to resort to just in case, one being a little bag of M&M’s his coach keeps on the bench. If his blood sugar drops during a game, he skates over, pops a few in his mouth and gets back on the ice.
“It’s something he can’t take a day off from, but the better he gets at it the better he’ll feel and the healthier he’ll be,” says Joey’s dad, Pat Carney. “It’s in his best interest to take care of himself, and I think he’s done a great job with it.”
For 10-year old Cameron Periera, everyday is still a learning process. Diagnosed with diabetes just five months ago, Cameron’s first question was whether he would live or die. The immediate follow-up was if he would be able to play hockey again.
Periera was happy to learn that while diabetes is a serious illness, people can and do go on to live normal, happy lives.
In Type 1 diabetics, the pancreas fails to produce insulin, a hormone that turns sugar into energy. This process is a necessity for everyone, but for an athlete, the challenge is finding the right amount of insulin needed to maintain a blood sugar level that allows the athlete to perform at a high intensity. And every individual is different.
“Regulation is key in knowing how much insulin they need to take with the activity level they’re at,” says Dr. Darryl Barnes, a specialist in sports medicine who works with athletes and diabetes at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
For Cameron and his family, finding that number was a complex process. First, they tried guessing what blood sugar number would work for him. However, he quickly lost focus and energy, forcing the Perieras to find another method. When he had a good game, his mom and dad would take him off the ice and immediately check his blood sugar level. The technique worked and Periera now aims to hit that level for every practice and game.
“I think it will make him stronger mentally,” says Cameron’s dad, Tony Periera. “He has a lot more things to worry about than just tying his skates.”
It took Cedar Rapids RoughRiders forward Jeff Costello two years to have a full understanding of the disease and make decisions on his own. Although Costello was diagnosed at age 5, it still goes to show the process of making diabetes part of a daily routine is far from an overnight process.
Now 18-years old, Costello has full control of the disease and played in the USHL All-Star game in early February. He has verbally committed to play at the University of Notre Dame next season.
“It took me a while to get to this point, but now that I’m at this point I have a pretty good feel for everything I’m putting into my body and how it’s going to affect me,” he says.
Costello says the most challenging part of managing his diabetes was adjusting to the dietary requirements, which he now just compares to the diet of an athlete. He avoids junk food and makes sure he eats with enough time before a game to ensure his insulin has fully worked its course and his blood sugar will remain steady.
“Once you have control over it, you can play like any other person could,” he says. “More than anything it’s helped me realize that hard work can prevail through anything.”
Dallas Stars center Toby Petersen is almost to the point where he can’t even remember life without diabetes. Although he has his game-day routine set in stone and knows exactly how his body will react to certain foods, he still keeps a blood glucose monitor close. It rarely happens, but if Petersen’s glucose levels were to get slightly out of whack during a game, its easily fixable and can be done within a TV timeout.
"I think it will make him stronger mentally. He has a lot more things to worry about than just tying his skates."
Athletes with diabetes used to be seen as a weakness. Clarke, considered the best player coming out of Canada in 1969, wasn’t drafted until the 17th pick because teams thought he might not be able to play. Advances in treatment and increased knowledge about diabetes have eradicated those opinions and it’s not nearly as much of a concern as it used to be.
“I’m sure it was something they were very aware of,” Petersen said about the issue of his diabetes during his draft process in 1998. “Teams want to make sure you’re on top of your routine and you’re keeping good blood sugar levels.”
Clarke remains an inspiration to many who struggle to meet the challenges of playing hockey while working through diabetes. His advice is simple:
“You’re a hockey player. You have diabetes. Don’t be identified as a diabetic hockey player,” he says. “I was a hockey player. And I happened to have diabetes. It had no effect on the way I played the game.”
While some may think a balancing act might be more suited for a circus performer, it becomes a reality for any athlete who must come to grips with and conquer diabetes.
“It’s going to do its part to slow you down but you have to fight back, and the best way to do that is regular visits with your doctor and continue to check your blood glucose level as much as possible throughout the day,” Petersen says.
“That will allow you to do whatever it is you want to do whether it’s in sports, business, politics. Whatever it may be, you can achieve it.”