UCF students find support in Type 1 group on campus

A registered student organization was established in 2010 to support, educate and help students with Type 1 diabetes.

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Every college student's main daily focus probably doesn't involve keeping track of insulin produced by their pancreas. But for some students, their lives depend on it.

A registered student organization called Type 1 at UCF was established in 2010 to support, educate and help students who have been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.

With Type 1, which typically starts in childhood or teenage years, the pancreas is unable to produce insulin — a hormone that is needed to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy needed for daily living, according to the American Diabetes Association.

Insulin therapy and other treatments are used to help diabetics manage their condition and live a healthy life. Diabetics must manually monitor their blood glucose levels and appropriately administer insulin, either through multiple daily injections with insulin pens, syringes or pumps.

The UCF Health Center's physician assistant Michael Cronyn and director Michael Deichen are the founders of the Type 1 group, and started the program with the intent to support young people with Type 1.

Cronyn was diagnosed with Type 1 at the age of 21 and said only about 40 percent of people are diagnosed over the age of 20.

Also serving as a physician assistant at the Florida Diabetes and Endocrine Center at Florida Hospital, Cronyn specializes in endocrinology — a specialty of medicine that deals with the diagnosis and treatment for diabetes and other diseases related to hormones — and continues to bring his practice to UCF.

Learning about the complications to diabetes when not appropriately treated, Cronyn said his desire was then stimulated to give students the opportunity to engage with their diabetes to live a healthier life.

"It's a very dynamic support group, and students who get involved in the group say they have a much better college experience," said Megan Pabian, spokeswoman for the UCF Health Center.

Some college students have never met another person who shares their diabetic experiences, and Pabian said the group serves as a very helpful outlet for them to meet and connect with others who understand their struggles.

Rachelle Gross, a primary care physician assistant at UCF's Health Center, was diagnosed with Type 1 at 11 years old, and now serves as the medical adviser for the Type 1 group.

"Diabetes has always been my passion," Gross said. "When I was diagnosed with Type 1, I said, 'That's what I want to do with my life. I have this, so I'm going to make this a positive thing and help other people who have it.'"

The Type 1 group is a student-run organization with a medical staff backing it up, including physician assistants, doctors, pharmacists, nutritionists and counselors — who run workshops and focus on various aspects of living with Type 1.

At the beginning of enrollment for the fall and spring semesters, incoming freshmen and transfers are asked to fill out an immunization form, where there is an option at the bottom to express interest in participating with the Type 1 group on campus.

The group meets once a month from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at UCF's 63 South, previously known as The Marketplace, where free dinner is provided for the group members.

Gross said she encourages members to bring a friend or significant other to the meetings if it would make them feel more comfortable.

"It is important that friends and significant others understand diabetes," she said. "The more understanding people have about it, the less fear that they'll have for that person."

Every year, a conference called Students With Diabetes is held in Tampa, which aims to create a community and connection for young adults with diabetes, ages 18 to 30, on both college campuses and local communities across the country, according to the SWD website.

Nicole Johnson, a Type 1 diabetic, former USF student and Miss America 1999, created the SWD organization in June 2010, with hopes of making young people feel empowered to control their lives and manage their diabetes.

According to a press release by Johnson, 1.25 million Americans live with Type 1, 85 percent of whom are over the age of 18, but have typically lived with it for the majority of their childhood and adolescence.

Each year, about 20,000 people under age 20 are newly diagnosed, and there are higher rates of depression and other emotional problems that may stem from Type 1, the release states.

"What Nicole is trying to do is get the word out as best as she can to let young people know that they are not alone," said John Healy, communications consultant for SWD. "They can come to this conference to learn, connect and feel empowered."

Johnson was diagnosed in her teens in 1993, and Healy said she felt that she had no sense of community — she was inspired to create SWD from her own personal experiences.

When Johnson first introduced the conference, Healy said there were less than 10 people in attendance, with the majority being USF students.

On May 23, SWD held its fifth annual conference in the Holiday Inn Tampa Westshore hotel, and had its largest turnout of approximately 150 college students from around the nation, 18 of whom were UCF Knights.

Healy hopes that one day there will be an SWD organization on every college campus in the country so students can have a support system and not feel so alone.

The transition to college may be challenging for many students because they're learning how to live on their own and manage most aspects of their life, in terms of what they eat, when they exercise and whether or not they decide to drink alcohol.

"All these things are really critical for the health of a Type 1 diabetic. They have to start making those decisions for themselves," Healy said.

College students not only have to keep track of their school work, but must also check their blood sugar frequently throughout the day, either by pricking their finger or wearing a glucose monitor that takes small amounts of blood from their skin. Depending on their blood sugar level, diabetics can then determine whether or not they need to give themselves insulin.

"Students living with diabetes not only have all the college stuff that they have to deal with, but they have a disease that they have to deal with 24/7," Gross said.

There is a special bond that is created between people who have Type 1, and Gross said she is able to help students connect to others with the disease.

The Type 1 group has introduced long-lasting friendships, and even relationships, throughout the years.

Two former members of the group, Marcus and Jeanette, met during the first Type 1 meeting in 2010, and have been together since.

"They started dating in the group, graduated and then got married in March," Gross said. "At their wedding, they had a big plaque saying how they met through a student Type 1 group. Before their cake cutting, they took a second and checked their blood sugar, gave themselves their injections and then cut the cake."

At the end of each year, Gross said most students stand up to express how the group has really impacted their lives.

"They feel much more comfortable about themselves knowing that other people are going through this. It boosts confidence about themselves," she said.

Daniel Byrd, a senior broadcast journalism major, was diagnosed with Type 1 in December 2013 when he was 20 years old. Given only a few weeks to adjust to the new lifestyle, he met with Gross at the Health Center, who then introduced him to the Type 1 group.

"I went in for the first time and I've been going ever since," Byrd said. "The group has done so much for me. I was only less than a month into diabetes when I joined the club. They've been such a big help."

A back-up pump was donated to the group from a mother of a former group member who passed away in April 2014. Byrd was the lucky member to get the pump, and he said he cannot thank them enough for making his life so much easier.

For Byrd, diabetes has had the biggest impact on his passion for sports, as one's blood sugar level can go dangerously up or down while being active.

"I play sports five times a week. I've gotten the shakes really bad where my blood sugar dropped and I had to pull myself out of the game," he said.

Shannon Hassett, a 21-year-old senior nursing major, has also experienced a major impact from the Type 1 group.

Hassett has been battling Type 1 diabetes for 10 years, and through her experiences, she now aspires to become a certified diabetes educator and family nurse practitioner to help others conquer diabetes.

"I have served in the Type 1 at UCF organization as the secretary, and found a family away from home when I came to college three years ago," Hassett said. "Type 1 at UCF is like no other group on campus. It's a family that comes together to help each other through life with a chronic disease."

At the SWD conference, the Type 1 group and other attendees were joined by well-known figures, famous people from television shows and various diabetes care companies who have a relationship with Type 1.

"To be able to get together with people that completely understand what we go through is the best support system anyone could ask for," Hassett said.

At the most recent conference, American Idol finalist Crystal Bowersox and American Ninja Warrior Kyle Cochran were in attendance, as they have both been diagnosed with Type 1.

Dr. Ed Damiano from Boston University was at this year's SWD conference to further explain an invention that is currently in the works, and very close to commercializing: a bionic pancreas, which would mimic the function of a real pancreas, but will be controlled using an outside device.

Damiano's son was diagnosed with Type 1 at 11 months old, and Healy said Damiano made it one of his life goals to create this bionic pancreas to help future diabetics.

"That's the goal, trying to advance science. But also trying to advance the sense of community that exists in the diabetes community," Healy said.

For next year's SWD conference, Hassett said a scholarship fund has been created to send as many students to the conference as possible. Students can earn up to $10,000 by "liking" and viewing the company's page and videos, respectively.

"Diabetes isn't something that holds us back, but rather gives us an opportunity to form a resiliency, strength and family that we would have otherwise never found," she said.

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Rachel Stuart is the News Editor for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @RachSage or email her at RachelS@CentralFloridaFuture.com.

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