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Dealing With Diabetes: Student’s life shaped by diagnosis at age 5

By Jeri Chadwell

Wes Fullmer studies nursing, Spanish literature and analytical chemistry at the University of Nevada, Reno, and Truckee Meadows Community College. He’s also in training to become an emergency medical technician. The 21-year-old has lived with Type 1 Diabetes for 16 years. He’s used to explaining the disease to people.

“The way I explain it is, with Type 1 Diabetes, my pancreas does not work at all,” Fullmer said. “So, when I go to eat something or drink something that has sugar in it, I have to do what a normal person’s body would do. So, I have to get insulin and test my blood sugar and, basically, do the function of my non-functioning organ.”

Diabetes is not something he’s shy about. You can find him sometimes sporting a smile and a T-shirt that declares he’s the “proud owner of a completely useless pancreas.”

As Fullmer is happy to explain, there is a difference between Type 1 Diabetes and Type 2 Diabetes, with which some people are more familiar. While Fullmer’s pancreas doesn’t produce insulin, people with Type 2 Diabetes might still have functioning pancreases—at least to some degree—but their bodies are unable to use the insulin they produce to completely control blood sugar levels.

Whereas Type 2 Diabetes often sets on in middle age, many with Type 1 Diabetes are diagnosed in childhood. Fullmer was diagnosed at 5 years old. It happened on his parents’ wedding anniversary.

Wes Fullmer, as a child, with his glucose meter.

“I was supposed to be going out with my grandma somewhere because it was my parents’ anniversary—but, for a couple of days, I hadn’t been feeling well,” Fullmer recalled. “I was getting these really bad headaches. I started wetting the bed again… So, I went to an urgent care in Vegas.”

The urgent care advised his parents to take him to an emergency room immediately.

“That’s all I kind of remember from my diagnosis. I remember being in a hospital and being very scared of what was happening because I had no idea at 5 years old why I was sick or what was going on,” he said. “From there, I only spent about two days in the hospital, which is pretty rare for being diagnosed with diabetes. Usually you spend quite a bit of time in the hospital.”

While he was in the hospital, Fullmer’s parents were getting an education on diabetes and how to manage it. At first, though, the learning curve of diabetes management was steep for the Fullmer family.

“I ended up back in the hospital again, shortly after my diagnosis,” Fullmer said. “But I always tell people that I was kind of lucky with my diagnosis of diabetes because it happened when I was so young. So, I don’t really remember my life before I had diabetes.”

Fitting in

He does remember what it was like to discover the Nevada Diabetes Association’s Type 1 Diabetes youth camp a few years later when he was 8.

“It was cool to have those connections, to be able to talk about diabetes, to be able to talk about the struggle, talk about people not really understanding what we’re going through—all while being just a kid because when everyone has diabetes at a camp, it’s like nobody has it because it doesn’t make you different,” Fullmer said.

He added, “I think that’s what kind of thrust me in the right direction, into having a positive attitude about diabetes… I absolutely fell in love with diabetes camp and continued going—and I still go to this day.”

Fullmer attended the Nevada Diabetes Association camp for seven years before becoming a part of the organization’s Teen Leadership Program as a counselor in training. Now, he helps oversee the program.

“My teenage years with diabetes were the hardest years ever,” he said. “You’re a teenager, so you’re already just trying to fit in with your friends and stick with the status quo and be cool and all of that—but now you have this disease that makes you look sick to other people sometimes, or makes you look different. For a while that was really hard for me, and it was hard to embrace my diabetes like I do today. But being around other diabetics has helped me step into that role of wearing my diabetes like a badge of honor.”

Wes Fullmer, far right, and three others at the annual Nevada Diabetes Association camp show off their glucose meters.

When at camp, it’s Fullmer’s goal to help teach attendees to do the same.

“Every single one of our campers there—which at our smaller camp is about 50 campers and at our larger camp can be close to 120 campers—all have diabetes, which is awesome,” he said. “And now we have a staff where 90% of our staff members also have Type 1 diabetes. So, it gives our campers kind of a role model to look up to, to say, ‘Hey, they’re a grownup, and they have Type 1 Diabetes too. That’s pretty cool.’”

But this isn’t the only purpose of the camp, nor is embracing life with Diabetes the only educational goal.

“We go swimming. We play games. We sing camp songs. We have campfires—things like that,” Fullmer said. “But every morning we also have an aspect of diabetes education. So, throughout the week, we are getting kind of a better education on ‘What is diabetes? How to manage diabetes. How what you’re putting in your body does to your body when you do have diabetes.’”

It’s the type of pragmatic education campers will need as they grow up and continue managing diabetes.

A full-time job in health care

“Managing diabetes is a whole hurdle of its own,” Fullmer said. “With Type 1 Diabetes…you have to compensate for what your body doesn’t do. So, my body, for example…anytime I eat I have to test my blood sugar to make sure it’s good. And then when I eat, calculate the carbohydrates that I’m eating and then give insulin on a ratio based upon how many carbs to how many units of insulin. And, so, that’s just the management of the eating aspect. In between eating, there still has to be blood sugar management because my body doesn’t know when it’s high or low.”

Fullmer mainly uses two different tools to manage his diabetes. The first is a continuous glucose monitor that allows him to see his blood sugar levels and how they’re trending every five minutes, in real time.  

“That’s really cool because I can see it on my phone, and I can share it with my family, so they also know what’s going on,” he said, adding that his levels are shared with both his mother and one of his best friends.

He also uses an insulin pump in lieu of insulin shots, with which many people may be more familiar.

“I use an insulin pump, which kind of works like a portable IV—which is the best way I can say it,” Fullmer said. “It holds a large amount of insulin and then, when I eat, I just have to type in some numbers and, boom, done.”

He added that “diabetes management is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week gig. And with that there are times that it’s very difficult and very frustrating—because diabetes can be very unpredictable. There’s so many aspects that can affect your blood sugar—so, being stressed out, exercising, not exercising, eating something different—all can go into the number that you test your blood sugar for.”

On top of that, the costs can be prohibitive.

“There’s no secret in our country now that insulin is a product that is super expensive,” Fullmer said. “It was recently named the sixth most expensive liquid in our country, which is insane because it’s a liquid that I need to stay alive.”

Despite considering himself lucky to have had insurance coverage throughout his life, Fullmer said his diabetes management can cost him between $300 to $500 a month in insulin and equipment like emergency needles and even snacks. Without insurance, he knows that his monthly out-of-pocket expenses would be much greater.

It has been developing this kind of understanding of Diabetes from both scientific and everyday standpoints and the opportunity to educate others about the disease that has driven Fullmer to stay involved with the Nevada Diabetes Association. He said being around doctors and nurses at the camp is also what led him to pursuing a career in medicine. But his love of nursing specifically is something he acquired while shadowing staff in a hospital.

Wes Fullmer at the University of Nevada, Reno quad.

“I just loved and commended the work that nurses did on a day-to-day basis—because they are with the patients the whole time,” he said. “And that’s the part of nursing that I really enjoy is getting to connect with patients and spend whole days with them and getting to know them. I really love nursing. I love the job of being a nurse. And I’ve had some fabulous role models who are nurses in my life.”

Fullmer’s goal is to land a career in emergency medicine.

“But I would also like to get my certification as a certified diabetes educator—that way, when we do see newly diagnosed patients at a hospital, I can go in and educate them,” he said.

In the meantime, he remains busy with his studies—and with managing both his personal life and his role with the Nevada Diabetes Association amid the pandemic.

A routine upended

Fullmer, like many others, will tell you that the COVID-19 pandemic has often left him feeling isolated.

“It’s hard,” he said. “I think a lot of people are feeling that same feeling right now with everything that’s happening. But, also, being isolated from people who understand what I’m going through with diabetes is really hard as well. We didn’t get to host our camp that normally happens in May. So, I didn’t get to see my friends that I’ve seen for the past 12 or 13 years. That was extremely difficult.”

He said the lack of routine that’s also so common for people has presented unique challenges to his Diabetes management.

“Diabetes runs on routine, I say, because you get in the habit of waking up, making sure your blood sugar is OK, eating a little breakfast, getting insulin and then kind of running through those same motions for lunch and dinner and any snacks you eat. And your body kind of gets used to that.”

He’s been managing in part by continuing to throw himself into his work with the association and its camps. Over the summer, the association ran a camp online. And last month it was able to hold a day program for 25 campers in person.

“It was socially distanced and very different from what we’ve done in the past, very different activities-wise and campers-wise and staff-wise,” Fullmer said. “But I think one of the most common things I heard from the parents of those campers was that they just wanted to see their friends, and they just wanted to be with their camp people again. And we were able to make that happen this past month, which was awesome.”

November is Diabetes Awareness Month. For more information visit https://www.diabetes.org/diabetes.