Diabetes technology normalizes life for active Arlington teen

Ragan Strong, who has already received her bid to Nationals and World cheer competitions, doesn’t let Type 1 diabetes crimp her style. A continuous glucose monitoring system helps her monitor her blood sugar levels. The tiny sensor she wears daily is just visible at the bottom hem of her shirt in this team photo.

Ragan Strong plays hard and works hard as an Arlington teen — balancing school, competitive cheerleading and life in general with close monitoring of her celiac disease and Type 1 diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder in which the body does not produce insulin on its own, so people with the disease must closely monitor their blood glucose levels, count carbohydrates and take insulin when needed.

Her diabetes in particular requires meticulous 24/7 management. So she always wears a sensor from the Dexcom G6, a continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) system that is covered by most insurance plans, and an insulin delivery pump from the Omnipod Insulin Management System. The CGM system means she doesn’t have to use lancets to prick her fingers and manually check her blood sugar levels multiple times throughout the day, and it also sends her alerts when her blood sugar is too low or high. The Omnipod means she doesn’t have to use syringes for her insulin doses.

The CGM’s sensor checks her blood sugar throughout the day and sends alerts to her smartphone if her levels rise too high or fall too low. Then she knows to adjust her use of insulin.

“It helps a lot,” Ragan said. “My Dexcom helps a lot. I don’t prick as much. Because my mom can also help follow my blood sugar because she has the ‘follow’ app. And my insulin pump, I don’t have to give myself shots.”

It’s been just under two years since Ragan learned she had Type 1 diabetes. Doctors diagnosed her on Jan. 31, 2017, when she was prepping for the UCA Cheer Nationals. She went into diabetic ketoacidosis and had to be rushed to the ICU via ambulance.

Ragan recalled that before this medical emergency, she had been feeling tired for the previous two weeks, guzzling water, trying to feed an insatiable appetite and constantly running to the bathroom. She also had lost 15 percent of her body weight sometime during or before that period.

Diabetic ketoacidosis is a serious complication of diabetes that occurs when the body produces high levels of blood acids called ketones. This happens when the body can’t produce enough insulin. Without treatment, people in this condition can fall into a coma and die.

In Ragan’s case, her quick diagnosis and treatment meant she had bounced back by just nine days later and was cheering alongside her teammates. She loves the sport of cheering and serves her team as a “flyer,” meaning she places at the top of her cheer team’s pyramid at games and then “flies” down for a safe landing.

National Diabetes Month

During November, National Diabetes Month, it’s important to know just how common this disease is and how important early treatment is in minimizing health problems. Diabetes is a disease that occurs when a person’s blood glucose (blood sugar) is too high. Over time, having too much glucose in the blood can cause health problems, such as heart disease, nerve damage, eye problems and kidney disease. People can take steps to prevent diabetes or manage it.

An estimated 30.3 million people in the United States, or 9.4 percent of the population, have diabetes. About one in four people with diabetes don’t know they have it. An estimated 84.1 million Americans aged 18 years or older have prediabetes.

Source: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; details at niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes.

She also has since regained the lost weight and taken charge of her health issues.

Her mother said, “I’m so proud of her. I’ve always nicknamed her the strongest chick I know. Because she literally has handled everything with such grace and strength, way more than me.”

Ragan carefully watches her diet, level of activity, stress and anxiety because all are factors that can affect Type 1 diabetes. She manages her diet responsibly and has embraced alternative fast-food meals such as gluten-free pizza and Chick-fil-A’s grilled chicken nuggets. With help from medical science, she lives a normal teen life.

“I can still do everything before, I can still cheer and go hang out with my friends, but I just have to watch what my blood sugar’s doing,” she said.

The technology Ragan uses also alerts her mother via her smart phone, letting her know when Ragan’s blood sugar is outside of healthy parameters. Mrs. Strong sleeps with her phone in the bed so such alerts will wake her. She’s worried about Ragan not having her as a safety net when she eventually lives on her own, but she appreciates how her daughter can use modern technology.

Mrs. Strong continued, “Because I just can’t even imagine having to do this without being able to know what your blood sugar is at any given time, without being able to just give your insulin at any time of day.”

About the Dexcom G6, the mother said, “Most days her blood glucose chart can still look like jagged mountains going up and down, but at least with the CGM we can see what it’s doing to know when she does maybe need more insulin.”

When people ask Ragan’s mother if she has any advice for Type 1 diabetics, she urges them to get on a CGM as soon as possible. “It was a game changer for us, because before she had that to monitor the blood sugar, we would just put her to bed at night, check her finger and assume she was good. And now I can see how many times it has dropped low during the night that she needs to be treated. You have a lot more peace of mind.”

Ragan plans to be an endocrinology nurse, a health educator with special training in disorders of the endocrine system, including diabetes. She wants to teach classes of newly diagnosed people. She loved the idea of being a nurse long before she fell ill, but now the career has personal meaning for her.

Diabetes technology

A new nationwide survey conducted by Dexcom and the nonprofit Beyond Type 1 found that many diabetes patients are missing out on life-changing technology simply because they are unaware it exists.

Key findings from the survey include:

  • Many people with Type 1 diabetes know nothing or little about CGM.
  • People with Type 1 diabetes do not know new technology has eliminated finger pricks.
  • The vast majority of people with diabetes are still pricking their finger every day.
  • Healthcare providers are not discussing CGM and other technology often enough.
  • According to users, the benefits of CGM are both life-saving and life-changing.
  • Current CGM users overwhelmingly recommend the technology.