Heather Hamilton remembers going to her first diabetes support group meeting. She was about 15 -- the youngest person in the room.
The 17-year-old Severna Park High School senior remembers her initial feelings of comfort and relief upon learning others shared her problems, but recalls that an important element was missing.
"You can't go in and talk about problems with homework and school when all these adults are talking about their adult problems," she says. "It was a really great feeling talking with someone, but I couldn't relate."
Heather kept that experience tucked away until she met a diabetic girl her age at a week-long summer education program at Johns Hopkins Diabetic Center last July. Jocelyn Dintaman, a senior at Broadneck, and Hamilton hit it off right away.
"It was really great talking with someone my own age with diabetes," Heather says.
The two began speculating about an alternative to the adult support groups they had joined. Wouldn't it be great, they thought, if there was a support group for people their age?
Tomorrow, Heather will address the first meeting of a new support group for high school -- and college-age diabetics. Hamilton admits she is a little nervous.
"I've been thinking about different things to say," she says.
Heather plans to have a health care professional or other speaker at every meeting, beginning with tomorrow's 7:30 p.m. session at the Annapolis branch public library on West Street.
The need for a support group for teens and college-aged students is great, Heather says. Diagnosed with the disease at age 12, she recalls letting her health care slip at age 14, a problem common among teens.
Diabetics must constantly monitor their blood-sugar levels and maintain a balance between food intake and insulin injections. After almost a year of poor health, Heather's parents forced her to attend Camp Glyndon near Reisterstown, as a counselor for younger diabetics. The responsibility of taking care of the younger children put her back on track, and she began to care for herself again.
"I felt a lot better," she says.
Heather estimates that approximately a half-dozen students from each area high school have the disease, with more at local colleges. If diabetes is poorly treated, victims can suffer eye trouble, heart disease, kidney failure and neuropathy -- a deadening of nerves -- of the feet. Heather hopes, through education, to get teens to take better care of themselves. Diabetics in high school and college have an even harder time, because constant changes in schedule make insulin injections and regularly scheduled meals and snacks harder to time. Also, most school administrators aren't familiar with the disease and its treatment.
"One of my friends had an insulin reaction (a condition that occurs when a diabetic injects too much insulin), and I had to get her something to eat," says Heather. No one else recognized the symptoms.
Incidents like this reinforce the need for education at the high school level, insists Heather.
"Groups are so essential to getting things worked out," she says.
Heather hopes support-group members will join the American Diabetes Association, which sponsors the group and hopes to launch a public awareness campaign.
Already, Heather is looking for a successor to take her place when she leaves for college to study nursing next fall. She's already began to look to the future.
"James Madison (University) has a support group, but if I don't go there, I'll start a group up," she says.