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Beyond diabetes
From E.R.s to swimming pools, girls learn how to overcome disease

Nine-year-old Lauren Ladzinski spends many of her summer days swimming in her neighbor's pool. She'll soon start another season of softball. She has been on the Jones Bridge swim team since she was 6.

She enjoys racing her twin brother, Jason, in the pool.

"He beats me by like a centimeter every time we race," Lauren said. "The other day, we were over at my dad's house, I beat him twice in a row."

She beat him in freestyle. That's her favorite. Her best.

Lauren will race anyone. She loves the competition. But like a number of other youngsters in the Gwinnett County Swim League, she also reaps great benefit from how activity - swimming is one of the best - helps her childhood diabetes.

Fifteen-year-old Emily Brannon also faces the daily fight with diabetes. She started swimming 10 years ago and as a freshman at Norcross she played volleyball. This coming school year she plans to swim for the Blue Devils. She loves the pool.

"It makes me feel good (to be active)," Emily said. "It keeps my numbers in order. I don't have to worry about having a high blood sugar at night."

And while neither will be in the pool at this weekend's Gwinnett County Swim League Championships, both will attend to watch friends and family. Swimming is part of their lives. Emily has been in the championships before and Lauren just missed qualifying this year while swimming in the 9- to 10-year-old division with older foes.

Lauren and Emily are not the face of childhood diabetes. They live healthy, active lives, with swimming being one of their chosen forms of exercise.

Weight is not an issue.

When diabetes is the topic, Type 1, like Lauren racing her brother, often finishes second, despite the severity.

Lauren and Emily each ended up in the emergency room with a blood sugar above 600 before they were diagnosed. Lauren was 22 months old with a blood sugar of 700. Emily was 14. Her number was 625 and she spent five hours in intensive care. A normal blood sugar is around 100.

Lauren and Emily both had stopped producing insulin, the hormone that breaks down sugar for energy.

In Type 1 diabetes, the body's immune system attacks the beta cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. The recessive genetic disorder is triggered by unknown environmental changes that begin the irreversible autoimmune process. In Type 2, people continue to produce insulin, their bodies are just resistant to it.

Type 1 typically starts at a younger age, but because of the increase in early onset Type 2 diabetes, the latter garners more attention.

Lauren and Emily now live with needles, pricked fingers and Band-Aids. Emily's diagnosis came last Labor Day and in the 11 months since, her fingers are so calloused that she struggles to draw enough blood to test.

Six or more finger pricks a day will do that.

The two recently moved from five-time daily injections to an insulin pump that only needs to be moved every third day.

"It's easier because I don't have to get five shots a day," said Lauren, who spent nearly seven years getting those five shots.

For Lauren, the lifestyle is the only one she knows. But that doesn't make it easy.

"She is a little embarrassed sometimes," her mother, Debbie Ladzinski, said.

But Lauren is not evasive. At 9 she is an expert. She checks her sugar and sets her pump and regulates her levels. Her mother supervises ("She is only 9," she said), but Lauren knows her levels and how they change.

"When I am in the house, I am at like 200," she says. "But while I am swimming it is in the 100s. I am getting exercise and bringing it to a good level."

And while Emily may be entering her sophomore year of high school and preparing to take her driver's exam, her expertise with diabetes is a pale comparison to Lauren's. This Labor Day, Emily and her family plan to celebrate the one-year mark since her diagnosis. It wasn't until this summer on a mission trip to New Orleans that Emily fully accepted her new life, abruptly altered by the disease.

"I took a while," she says. "I was trying to talk myself into it for a long time."

From the beginning, Emily used athletics and activity to control her blood sugar. Her mother, Carol Brannon, also a registered dietitian, says Emily's involvement in volleyball during onset may have delayed the severe effects. Even as an expert, the overt symptoms of diabetes slipped past Carol because, individually, they were easy to explain.

Like Lauren, Emily uses exercise to lower her dependence on insulin. Her busy summer kept her off the neighborhood swim team, but not away from the pool or sitting on the couch all day.

And that's where the sports are more than just exercise for Lauren and Emily.

It augments their insulin treatments and makes it easier on their bodies. It's less medication, more natural body processes.

"Insulin works like a key to open up a cell to let the sugar inside," said Sue Tocher, coordinator of the diabetes education program at Children's Medical Center. "Exercise makes that key work better. Everything runs better."

Their lives improve in direct correlation to their bodies' efficiency. Both can eat what they want, as long as they pay attention, and when they are active they can and need to eat more.

"One thing that bothers me is when people see me eating sugar, they think I am not allowed to eat it and start yelling at me, or questioning me," Emily said.

Emily and Lauren know. They wake up every day to a needle and a meter. But needles and meters and carb counting are not what Emily and Lauren are. Just something they do. When it's done, they'll be back in the pool or on the softball field or on the volleyball court.

As Emily says: "I can be as active as I want."