Columnist

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 6–8 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Q. I’ve been a Type I juvenile diabetic since I was almost 3 years old. I don’t remember being at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh then, unless you count some vague clouds of memory involving a pretty big fear of needles. Now, 15 years later, it’s all just normal to me. Why am I writing? For my parents and for me. I’m off to college in June. I elected to do classes early so I can adjust before thousands of students arrive in the fall. I’ve selected a school less than three hours away with a moderately sized student body. I’ve checked out the health care and connected to the campus nurse practitioner. I’m ready, right?

Well, my parents aren’t ready. They’ve done a really good job of not hovering, of treating me like my siblings and of fostering my independence. That doesn’t mean they’re not scared. I know they are.

And, me, I’m a little scared too, but I won’t say it out loud. I’d like them to know, so I’m hoping you can answer my question in your column and then I can say, “Hey, that’s me!”

What are we afraid of? I know my mom and dad well enough to know they’re afraid my diabetes will get out of control when I’m at school. My dad mumbles about the dangers of alcohol for someone like me at least three times a week. My fear is different. In some ways, my diabetes is a disability. I’ve learned to cope and to live with it, but I know I have an invisible disability. No one can tell from the outside of me. Do I share with total strangers? How vulnerable will I be? I want to be normal and I’m worried people will treat me differently because I’m not.

I don’t know if this is even an area you can talk about, but I had you in middle school and I remember you felt safe. You said we could ask questions. It’s a little late, but here I am!

18-year-old

Mary Jo’s Response: My very first job was as a registered nurse in the Clinical Studies Unit at Children’s Hospital in 1970.

Yes, I am that old.

All newly diagnosed juvenile diabetics came to our unit. I taught parents and children diabetic education. It was my first teaching experience. I fell in love with health education then. I can respond.

You articulated your concerns beautifully. You truly are prepared for college in so many ways. I love the way you’ve asserted your independence. Yes, I believe you are ready.

Your parents may be readier than you think. They’ve sent you to preschool, elementary, middle and high school. They’ve taught you about diabetes, nutrition and maintenance of your health. Their courage is to be commended. They’ve given you roots and now they are prepared to give you wings. I think it’s perfectly normal for them to be concerned. Parenting is an immensely rewarding role, but the owner’s manual is weak. They’ve learned to cope, just like you.

Your words about invisible disabilities echo. One of the messages I gave to those long-ago parents of children newly diagnosed with Type 1 juvenile diabetes dealt with worthiness – theirs and their little ones. You remain worthy. I’m sure you’ve learned who your good friends are – they have your back. It is scary to go into the unknown. It takes courage to be vulnerable.

Those of us who live with invisible health challenges or disabilities are not defined by our challenges. You are not your diabetes. You are a new college student facing a stew of excitement and anxiety. You will make friends you trust. It’s up to you what you share. No one should be invisible. You are not now, nor will you be on campus. You say you want to be normal. What is normal? Who defines its parameters? There are as many variations of “normal” as there are humans. You said it yourself – it’s all just normal to you now.

Keep connected to your parents when you leave for school, for their sake and your own. They have more to teach you and you have more to teach them. This next season of your life is a learning experience. Embrace it. You already have a support system in place on campus. Your parental support will continue. Enjoy each day.

For those who are unfamiliar, I recommend the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) for more information and a place to donate and help make a difference. For more information, visit https://www.jdrf.org/t1d-resources/about/symptoms/children/infants-toddlers/

Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email podmj@healthyteens.com.

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