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Our Neighbors...Team Matt 24 is going strong

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 Jamie Lund

Julie Radovich quickly scans the players’ bench for her son, Matt, after she notices her husband (and Matt’s coach), Tom, has disappeared.

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“Where’s Matt, has anyone seen Matt?” she asks the other Cloquet Bantam B hockey team parents.

Julie runs out of the press box in the old Barn (aka Pine Valley hockey arena) to the locker room.

She is calm, but hurries.

Thirteen-year-old Matt Radovich looks like any other kid on the team except he wears an insulin pump for his type 1diabetes, a lifelong auto immune disorder in which the body has turned on itself and destroyed its own insulin.

His mom makes sure he gets a juice box to help balance his sugar levels again and a Mountain Dew to sip on when he is done with the juice.

Soon Matt will take his spot back on the bench and on the ice.

Matt has what is commonly referred to as juvenile diabetes, but the misconception is that only kids can be diagnosed with it. In fact, 85 percent of people with type 1 diabetes are adults and can be diagnosed in their 20s, 30s or 40s, according to the American Diabetes Association.

“He is just like other kids, but his pancreas doesn’t work,” Julie said.

Julie composed herself for a minute before continuing as she remembered her little guy on that Memorial Day weekend back in 2002.

Matt was a typical 23-month-old toddler when his parents noticed he was more hungry than usual and extra thirsty, as well as constantly urinating and not putting on any weight, all common symptoms of diabetes.

His ribs were showing; his face was gaunt.

Julie called the hospital over the holiday weekend with her concerns. The nurse immediately set her up with a doctor appointment early in the day on Tuesday.

That Tuesday morning changed their lives forever.

“It was like a switch had been flipped in him,” said Julie.

Matt was lethargic when they got him up, because his body had begun to shut down. His blood sugar was out of control and his body couldn’t keep up.

Her voice wavered a bit as she recalled it.

The doctor ran two tests: one for bladder infection, the other for diabetes.

“You don’t think about that,” Julie said.

When they were told it was type 1 diabetes, Tom’s suspicions were confirmed, although he had not confided them to his wife as he hoped he was wrong.

The average person’s blood sugar range is 80-120. Matt was at 700 when he arrived at the clinic. He was suffering from Ketoacidosis, caused by too much sugar in the blood stream.

The doctors sent the Radovich family directly to the hospital where Matt was immediately hooked up to an IV.

Matt passed out as his body began the long process of rehydrating and getting his blood sugar levels down to normal.

The Radoviches spent several days and nights at the hospital with their son. The nurses brought in a crib for their 3-month-old daughter, Allie.

The family got a crash course in diabetes education during their stay.

One of the most important things they learned was how to give the insulin shots. Matt had to have four shots a day.

They began practicing on an orange, then graduated to the real thing. They were required to give Matt his shots before they could take him home from the hospital.

The first year was the most difficult. “I felt so alone, isolated,” Julie said.

Tom agreed: “It feels like the end of the world, but it’s not.”

There was a large learning curve for the family during that first year. Julie had to learn how to give her toddler four shots a day by herself while Tom was at work.

Matt cried so hard, it was an emotional drain in the beginning.

“You have to do it or they die,” said Julie.

All of Matt’s food had to be measured out exactly, so they used a scale to weigh every meal.

After a while it became more routine and the family adjusted. They learned how to count carbohydrates, read labels and recognize when Matt’s levels were getting out of whack. They also got involved with the local diabetes support group in Duluth. The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) also donates a “bag of hope” to diagnosed children. Included in Matt’s was a teddy bear with Band-Aids on it.

Soon Julie found herself being an active advocate and started a chapter in Cloquet. She told parents to call her anytime, day or night. She helped educate others and shared her own experiences.

 The Radoviches’ biggest piece of advice to people is to educate themselves and join a parent networking group.

Websites such as www.jdrf.org and www.diabetes.org have plenty of good, updated information.

No day off from diabetes

When Matt was about 4 1/2 years old, the Radoviches decided to stop giving the insulin shots and instead use a pump.

The small computerized device is about the size of a deck of playing cards and can be worn on a belt or carried in a pocket. Like an IV, the pump has a very small flexible hose that Matt inserts into his skin. It gets moved every few days. Matt types in how many carbohydrates he has eaten and the pump sets the insulin amount accordingly and releases the correct dosage.

Matt is matter-of-fact about his diabetes. At 13 years old, he doesn’t remember life without it.

His daily routine includes many finger-pricks throughout the day, carb counting and giving himself insulin with his pump every time he eats.

When Matt switched to Esko School in fifth grade, he got up in front of the class and gave a small talk on the disorder. He showed his teacher and fellow classmates his insulin pump and answered any questions.

Matt’s friends help remind him to check his levels and take his insulin when he is in school or away from home.

A year later, another boy with diabetes entered the fifth grade and the teacher asked Matt if he would mentor the boy, which he did.

Matt is active and enjoys playing golf, football, baseball and hockey, most of which his dad coaches. Tom played sports and coached before Matt was born. Now he has another reason to coach.

“I didn’t want to put that burden on the coaches,” said Tom, who can tell by watching Matt’s performance if his levels are off.

The sports help give Matt more needed structure in his life and the exercise is helpful in controlling his diabetes.

Matt wears his pump on a belt while playing sports, except for football.

The pump is safely tucked under his breezers when he plays hockey, where it is not in danger from a check.

During baseball, his mom said, the sun seems to affect his sugar levels, making him dehydrate easier than most people so he makes sure to drink extra fluids.

Stress, nerves, being sick and growth spurts can also affect his sugar levels.

Matt knows the symptoms when his levels are off. If he feels light-headed, dizzy or wobbly, his levels are low, which can lead to a seizure.

Exercise causes his levels to rise, so does eating pizza late at night, which is due to the high fat content.

Julie has monitored Matt’s levels at night since he was diagnosed. If it looks like there may be an issue, she will set her alarm and check again in the middle of the night. Sometimes a juice box is needed to get Matt’s levels to normal again.

“Stay on top of your blood sugars, check foods for carbs ... know what you eat,” advises Matt.

A common myth for diabetics is they cannot eat certain foods. Not true. The doctors have told his parents not to deprive Matt of food. He just has to watch portions and keep an eye on his blood-sugar levels.

Matt attended a one-week summer camp, Camp Needlepoint, for diabetic children, when he was 9 years old.

The soft-spoken teen refuses to let diabetes control his life. When the opportunity came up for a hockey camp away from home, he excitedly attended.

His mom was a nervous wreck about him being two hours away from home, but an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) kept a close eye on Matt and talked to Julie every day.

“The child can lead a normal life ... it does not change their personality,” Tom said.

Remember to take care of yourself and the other people in the family, as those things can be easy to forget in the constant focus that diabetes can center on the diabetic person, advise the Radoviches.

Walk to Cure Diabetes

Matt is passionate about JDRF’s “Walk to Cure” even though he has not been able to participate in the last few years because of sports.

The Radoviches packed up their stroller with baby Allie when Matt was 4 1/2 years old to join the fund-raising event in the Twin Cities for the first time.

The team name was “Mighty Matt” until this year. Now it’s “Team Matt 24,” because 24 is his hockey jersey number.

The walk takes place in the Mall of America and the donations raised go towards finding a cure. Last year 22,000 people participated.

The Radoviches write letters to family and friends asking for donations. Last year they raised about $1,300.

“Every day is a balancing act,” said Julie.

Anybody interested in donating can go to www2.jdrf.org and find Team Matt 24.

Diabetes Statistics

  • 8.3 percent of the children and adult population in the United States have diabetes.
  • 7.0 million people are undiagnosed.
  • About 1 in every 400 children and adolescents under the age of 20 has diabetes.

(American Diabetes Association)

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