Except for the white patch on her arm, there’s nothing to suggest 11-year-old Greta Sobol’s problems are any different from those of other kids her age.
But in April last year, Greta was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, an autoimmune disorder that destroys the body’s ability to produce insulin.
Insulin is a naturally produced hormone that helps people convert sugar into energy – but Greta’s body can’t make it.
Instead, the Niagara-on-the-Lake youngster has to give herself manufactured insulin with an injection device.
The diagnosis happened on a Monday night, a few days before Easter weekend 2022.
Earlier in the day, Greta has some blood work done after several weeks of feeling unwell.
At around midnight, the family received a call: Get Greta to the hospital immediately.
“Like any parent will tell you, one of your greatest fears is always that your child is unwell,” said her father, Jonathan Sobol.
Receiving the call was “a bit nightmarish,” he said.
Greta remembers being woken up and taken to the St. Catharines hospital, still in her red and black plaid pyjamas.
“’Kid, you’ve got diabetes,’” she said her dad told her in the car.
Greta was immediately admitted to the pediatric ward and her battle with diabetes began.
A year and a half later, wearing a blue and white striped shirt, she sits between her two parents at their kitchen table.
The young diabetic keeps no blood tester close by. There’s no yellow biohazard container for used needles within sight.
Even the strong scent of freshly injected insulin is missing.
Her father drinks coffee on her left, her mom Ann Deuerlein is on her right. Younger sister Eve perches on her mom’s lap.
The family takes turns retelling and sharing Greta’s story.
When first diagnosed, she was injecting herself with needles five times a day, a routine the medical community often refers to as pen therapy.
“If you call it a needle, it sounds worse,” Greta said, pointing out the needles actually are very small.
Today, she uses an Omnipod, an insulin delivery device that attaches to her body and can be controlled through a smartphone to give her insulin throughout the day to help keep Greta’s blood sugars in a healthy range.
She also uses a Dexcom device to monitor her blood sugars, eliminating the need for her to draw blood to check.
Greta is this year’s youth ambassador for Sun Life’s annual Walk to Cure Diabetes, a fundraiser for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
The walk starts at 10 a.m. at the Virgil sports complex in Niagara-on-the-Lake on Sunday, Sept. 10.
Her parents are co-chairing the charity drive and, in addition to fundraising for a cure, Greta’s dad says the organization helps people connect with a wider community touched by juvenile diabetes.
Greta says she has made a few friends through the research foundation, including NOTL’s Maya Webster, who was last year’s ambassador.
It’s easier to make friends with people at the foundation’s events because they have something to talk about.
“You’re just like, ‘Wow, they are exactly like me. They know what I’m going through,’ ” she said.
With the research foundation’s community supporting her, Greta is looking to “give back” with this year’s run.
In the weeks leading up to her diagnosis, she remembers being thirsty, tired and sad.
Greta said no one noticed how often she excused herself to drink from the school fountain.
It’s the exhaustion that stands out the most for her, though.
“I didn’t know why. I would just be like, ‘Mom, I’m sad and I don’t know why,’ and I would just start, like, crying my eyes out.”
Deuerlein takes the occasional break to wipe away a tear. She says the community was an instrumental support when she was “swimming in the amount of new information” that came with her daughter’s diagnosis.
Greta was experiencing hyperglycemia, which means that her blood had too much sugar in it.
It’s what happens when a diabetic takes in too much sugar and not enough insulin and some of the most common symptoms of hyperglycemia are thirst, fatigue and irritability.
If it goes on long enough, a diabetic person will lose weight because they are unable to convert sugar into energy.
As the sugar builds up in the body, they will attempt to dispose of the extra sugar through urination.
This is why diabetic people with high blood sugars become thirsty: the body is attempting to get rid of excess sugar.
If that goes on for too long, it can trigger a coma called diabetic ketoacidosis.
“If you’re unfamiliar with the signs and symptoms, you think it could be anything,” Sobol said.
For a while, Deuerlein said, she thought her daughter was going through depression, or some mid-pandemic blues.
It was very unlike their normally social and spunky nine-year-old to be so tired and irritable all the time, she said.
The parents weren’t sure what was going on, but Sobol’s mom – Greta’s grandmother – suggested Greta looked thinner during a visit to her home one weekend in early April.
That’s when Deuerlein started to wonder if it was diabetes.
The next Monday, Greta’s parents took her to a Life Labs in NOTL for blood work. By the end of that day, she would be at the hospital.
Normal blood sugar readings are between four and eight millimoles per litre. At the hospital that night, Greta’s was more than 30.
What sticks out most for Greta was when hospital staff attempted to hook her up to an IV bag.
The staffer tried to get an intravenous needle multiple times on each arm and still couldn’t do it.
“It was a terrible way for her to wake up,” Sobol said.
Even today, Greta sometimes wonders if she’ll wake up without diabetes.
She misses the days when she could play dodgeball at school without interruption.
Exercise causes blood sugars to drop and low blood sugar is dangerous for a diabetic. When sugars get too low, juvenile diabetics are at risk of going into hypoglycemic shock.
At its worst, a low blood sugar can result in seizures and hospitalization.
“My hands get all shaky, and I get really sweaty and tired,” Greta said.
Other symptoms include hunger, confusion and queasiness.
To treat it, diabetics need to consume fast-acting sugar, like juice or candy to bring their levels back to a safe range.
Sometimes Greta thinks the whole disease is just a “bad dream” and maybe she’ll wake up.
Meanwhile, she’s waiting on a cure.
“It will go away. It just might take longer than I hoped it would,” she said.
And if it doesn’t come, she says she’ll find one herself.
People interested in sponsoring or volunteering for the walk this Sunday can contact Deuerlein at annJDRFwalk@gmail.com.