Dana Heffern (R) and her mentee Sarah Bouvier, both of SB.

Mentor Provides Example of Hope for Teenager with Type 1 Diabetes

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Thursday May 19, 2011

Life in Vermont suits Dana Heffern, a former New York City resident who moved to South Burlington for a quieter lifestyle.  This fiery red head is a talented decorative painter, interior designer, and former Broadway scenic artist, now studying for her Master’s in Fine Arts at Goddard College.  And though it may not define her, she’s also a type 1 diabetic, sharing her story of hope and providing education about her disease through art and mentoring. 

For nearly a decade, Dana has been living with type 1 diabetes, the condition in which the body’s immune system attacks and destroys beta cells of the pancreas responsible for the production of insulin.  Without insulin, the hormone which helps transport the gluclose contained in food through the cells of the body for energy, the gluclose stays in the blood, where it can cause life-threatening damage to the organs.   

Two years ago, Dana’s husband of 19 years, Victor LaLoggia, convinced Dana to escape a demanding career and the stress of the big city (both of which were taking a toll on Dana’s health) to find refuge in the suburbs.  Months later at a doctor’s appointment, Dana learned about Spectrum’s Youth & Family Services mentor program for type 1 diabetics, and without hesitation, she enlisted.  Dana reached out to 15-year-old Sarah Bouvier, a freshman at South Burlington High School.  For the past year, the pair have planned weekly get-togethers to cook, share their passion for art and sports, and commiserate about life’s challenges.

“We get along very well,” said Sarah, an aspiring art teacher, of the mentor relationship with Dana.  “We both really like art and softball.  It’s really helpful if I have questions to turn to someone older who’s in the real world and going through the same thing.”

“Sarah and I are bonded by a disease,” said Dana, who understands the isolation type 1 can trigger in young people, “and to that we have an unspoken understanding toward each other.” 
Sarah, just five years old when she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, is now an active teenager.  But unlike most girls her age, Sarah must test her blood sugar more than five times a day and self administer insulin through an insulin pump or syringe to keep her blood sugar levels normal.  Levels that are too low, as a result of exercise, or too high, as a result of carbohydrate intake, can result in coma or even death. 

“It’s so important when someone has a chronic, lifelong disease, to know someone else who is personally dealing with the same issues, struggles, and successes,” said Sarah’s mother, Mary Beth Bouvier, who often worries about the complications the disease could have on her daughter in the future.  “Sarah can see her [Dana’s] successes and learn from her struggles along the way.”

Type 2 diabetes—the most common form of diabetes where risk factors such as obesity, genetics, and ethnicity play a role—is often confused with type 1, much to the frustration of type 1 diabetics. According to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, there is no known cause or cure for type 1 diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes.  One in 400-500 people in the general population develops type 1 diabetes, usually in childhood or young adulthood.  Ten percent of those diagnosed with type 1 diabetes will have a family history of the disease. 

Acknowledging the constant demands of dealing with this misunderstood disease, Sarah said, “Diabetes is always on my mind in some way.  The only time it’s not a big deal is when I go to diabetes camp over the summer.  That’s normal there.  At home and at school I’m always thinking about if I’m high or low.”

“For me, knowledge fashions the path to understanding,” said Dana, recipient of a scholarship from the Association on Higher Education and Disability to help fund a performance art piece on the difficulties of living with type 1 diabetes, entitled “Antidote,” which will be performed for the public on July 26 at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont.  “Type 1 diabetes affects my life in every way. I advocate for accurate information and a cure. I believe we are coming close.”

To help find that cure, Sarah will be participating in her 8th annual Walk to Cure Diabetes for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation with friends and family on Sunday, May 22, 10 a.m. at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg.  For more information on the walk, visit http://www.jdrf.org/index.cfm?page_id=112819.   To learn how you can experience the gallery show “Antidote,” visit http://living-in-progress.com.

NOTE: United Way Hometown Hero -- On September 10, Dana Heffern, a Spectrum Type 1 Diabetes mentor, was one of the volunteers honored at the United Way 2010 Hometown Hero Awards Breakfast. Not only was Dana one of the pioneer mentors in this collaboration between Spectrum Mentoring and Dr. Dan Shumer of the Children’s Hospital at Fletcher Allen, but she also hosted and cooked for all the Type 1 matches at her home. Dana also volunteers to coordinate the Burlington Community Arts program which offers free art classes at BCA. Dana’s passion and innovative ideas are a true inspiration to any mentor and Spectrum is proud to have her as part of our mentoring program.

SOURCE: Lisa Osbahr, Correspondent