Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month

Originally published on the now defunct on March 7th, 2011

March has been designated National Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month. Unfortunately, this is a condition which I know a little something about.

A mere week into his first grade of school, my then 6 year old son acquired what I initially assumed was nothing more than your run-of-the-mill cold, except he was exceptionally tired and lethargic even for being sick. I also noticed a drastic increase in his need to urinate as well as his thirst. All he was interested in talking about was what he wanted to drink next and when. Still, he woke that next morning with lips so dry they could have been cotton balls and eerily dark circles around his eyes. On top of that, and above all else, he just seemed miserable.

My Googled diagnosis then began veering towards other still normal causes. Maybe he has a case of food poisoning, we ventured a guess, or it could be an ear infection. All of these, however, were shots in the dark. When the next day passed and he still wasn’t feeling better, but instead began refusing to eat and would barely move out of bed, I said enough. He needed to get checked. I wanted my little boy back. I still thought for sure I would come away from that doctor’s appointment with the usual bottle of antibiotics, if that.

Imagine my surprise when they ordered a rush on his bloodwork and advised us to stick around, a trip to the hospital may be necessary. It was an even bigger shock when his blood glucose level came back over 820, when a child’s normal range should never be above 180. He was also shown to be severely dehydrated.

My 6 year old son was admitted into the PICU, where I heard terrifying possibilities like brain swelling and coma. Fortunately, the worst case scenarios never came to light, but he did have Type 1 diabetes. Unlike Type 2, Type 1 has nothing to do with what you eat. It is a treatable, but incurable, autoimmune disease. An ordinary virus attacked his body. In trying to protect itself, his hyperactive immune system began to also destroy the cells that produce his natural insulin. It would have been easier in a way if there was an outside cause to blame his diagnosis on, a diet we could change. Alas, his body simply did this to itself. With help from genetics.

Our bodies are amazing. And baffling.

Since autoimmune diseases do run in families, I have been worried about my younger two children inheriting the same diagnosis. In addition, people with one autoimmune disease are more susceptible to others. Many of those with Type 1 diabetes also have Celiac disease, a reaction to eating gluten that damages the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing vital nourishment from food.

Currently, my son is in a “honeymoon phase” of his condition, which is where his pancreas is still fighting to make more of its own insulin. Sadly, it won’t last. His immune system will keep attacking those cells until the factory halts production for good. All of his doctors have continued to assure me that he will live a long and healthy life, but he is going to need to monitor his blood sugar and administer injections for the duration.

There is a wealth of knowledge at the AARDA website, along with information to ask about your family’s autoimmune quotient. Does this disease fall in your genetics? It’s better to know the possibilities before it’s too late.