Friends with opposite disorders lean on each other for support

December 8, 2017

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Cypress Springs High Schools seniors Yolanda Pedraza (left) and Vanessa Aristizabal are not only friends but a support system for each other. Aristizabal was diagnososed with hypoglycemia 16 years ago, a condition where the body produces too much insulin and leads to low blood sugar levels. Pedraza was recently diagnosed on Nov. 10 after being rushed to the hospital. (Photo by Yolanda Pedraza, Cypress Springs HS)

By Yolanda Pedraza, Cypress Springs HS

Dec. 8, 2017—Life as a high school student can be hard – especially when one has been taking college classes ever since freshman year, as is the case with seniors Vanessa Aristizabal and Yolanda Pedraza.

It can be even harder with disorders such as hypoglycemia and diabetes.

Most people have heard about diabetes; the body either stops producing or becomes resistant to insulin because of genetics and other factors that scientists have yet to discover. Hypoglycemia, however, is the opposite—the body produces too much insulin, leading to low blood sugar levels. Both are incurable life-threatening disorders.

Aristizabal has lived with her diagnosis of hypoglycemia for over 16 years. She was diagnosed when she was one year old after being rushed into the emergency room because of a seizure caused by her low blood sugar level at the time, which left her hospitalized in the intensive-care unit.

“We had taken her to the doctor beforehand because she kind of got into these trances every once in a while, and we figured they might be seizures,” said Monica Piedrahita, Aristizabal’s mother. “We got sent home with flu medicine because the doctor didn’t think of checking her blood sugar levels. She seemed to get better for a while, but after about a month, she had another seizure. We took her to the emergency room, and it turns out, her blood sugar level was at about 40 when it should’ve been above 70.”

Aristizabal doesn’t let her diagnosis stop her from doing what she wants. She’s been in band for almost seven years, including marching band, which requires students to be outside in the sun doing rigorous exercises. This often includes performing at halftime during football games and not being able to go home until 11 p.m. or so. With this comes the responsibility of not letting her blood sugar level get too low, especially with all the exercise and sweating that generally happens even after marching band season ends.

“I have to constantly eat small snacks throughout the day to keep my levels up,” said Aristizabal. “Even at home, though, I have to eat at a certain schedule every day, including weekends. If not, I feel shaky, the back of my neck starts sweating and I could ultimately faint, and that means glucagon.”

Glucagon is an emergency injected treatment for both Aristizabal and Pedraza if either of their levels drop too much, which could leave either unconscious. 

While Aristizabal has been diagnosed for 16 years, Pedraza’s hypoglycemia diagnosis is more recent. She was diagnosed with diabetes on Nov. 10 after being rushed to the emergency room because of a call from the doctor, which she visited earlier in the week.

Pedraza was going through Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), a stage in which the body starts consuming fat that has been stored away because the lack of insulin wouldn’t allow the food she was eating to be broken down into the energy and nutrients she needed to survive. This also left her in the ICU for an extended time.

Like Aristizabal’s visit to the emergency room and ICU, Pedraza’s could have also been avoided. The initial visit was misdiagnosed as a panic attack.

“She (Pedraza’s primary care pediatrician) didn’t even touch her,” said Rocio Garcia, Pedraza’s mother. “She didn’t send analysis, or anything. She just asked her a few questions and sent us home with her expert diagnosis of a panic attack. Thankfully, we took her to a Hispanic clinic the next day, and the first thing they did was to indeed, take blood and send analysis for it.

“Two days later, the clinic calls back and tells me to take her to the emergency room because her sugar levels were dangerously high. She wouldn’t have lasted another week.”

With blood tests, calculating insulin doses for injections, counting carbohydrates, and measuring each portion to the teaspoon for every single meal, waking up at 2 a.m. for another blood test, and making sure her blood sugar level doesn’t get too low either, Pedraza is already feeling the hardships of her diabetes.

“T1D (Type 1 Diabetes) isn’t only high blood sugar level and insulin injections before every meal, it’s blood sugar levels that go haywire at random times,” she said. “One hour I could be at a normal level, and the next, I could be insanely high again, or insanely low. I can’t tell the difference between the three yet, but my body is used to being high, so right now I feel as if I’m low. It’s confusing.”

Throughout all of this, Aristizabal and Pedraza have remained strong. They have not let their disorders get the best of them. They are both in the top 10 percent of their class and are earning A’s and B’s. Aristizabal is planning on joining her older brother at Texas A&M University to become a veterinarian. Pedraza plan on heading to the University of Houston to study journalism.

“I’m helping her out right now,” Aristizabal said. “She’s new to all of this, so I’m trying to answer all the questions that she has about it, even if it’s only the low part.”

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