Austin Coldsnow is a model of personal success with type 1 diabetes. The 20-year-old Hartville resident was a standout athlete in high school who earned all-conference honors in soccer, track and football. He played on a nationally ranked soccer travel team as well. He’s a Malone University psychology major, a midfielder on the university soccer team and an honors student active in 3 clubs on campus.
Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 5, Austin decided long ago he would not let the disease stop him. He also learned early on that maintaining normal blood sugar was paramount. That is a lot of responsibility for a young kid. But to achieve his goals and maintain good health, Austin learned about self-discipline. That means checking blood sugar all day long, and being especially vigilant during and after competitions and practices. It means watching what he eats and always carrying a backpack stuffed with snacks and juice boxes in case his blood sugar crashes. It means telling friends what to do should he pass out.
“I really don’t know what it’s like not to have diabetes,” Austin said on a recent afternoon break between classes. “I think of it as part of me. I’ve always wanted to show people you can do anything you want with a chronic disease like diabetes.”
He wants to be an inspiration for children with type 1 diabetes. Last summer was his second as a counselor at the Akron Children’s Hospital diabetes camp. Most of the counselors are former campers. The experience underscored for him how important it is for kids to have an older role model.
“The camp is the highlight of my summer,” Austin said. “I try to show younger kids they can do anything they want. They don’t have to be limited, but they have to monitor their blood sugar.”
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease usually diagnosed in childhood or adolescence. The disease destroys cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. Without insulin, blood sugar builds up in the bloodstream. High blood sugar in the short term can cause a range of symptoms including nausea, weakness and confusion. In the long term, it can lead to health problems involving the heart, blood vessels, eyes, kidneys and nerves.
Austin’s parents have been diligent about his diabetes care. A sensor under his skin provides continuous blood-sugar (glucose) monitoring that both Austin and his parents can track in real time on a smartphone app. An insulin pump is tethered to his hip.
“Initially we would set our alarms in the middle of the night to catch the low or high and correct accordingly,” said Austin’s mother, Malinda “Mindy” Bragg-Coldsnow, a physical therapist in Sports Medicine and Sports Rehabilitation at Akron Children’s. “Now we have the continuous glucose monitor (CGM) that alarms us and also we have a diabetes alert dog.”
Mindy and Austin’s father, Mike, at times have found Austin hypoglycemic – having very low blood sugar – in the middle of the night and had to administer emergency medication.
They are proud he has done so well despite the many challenges. This past October, Austin for the second time was named global ambassador of the month for Team Type 1 Foundation, an advocacy group that provides college scholarships to athletes with type 1 diabetes.
“He has had to show maturity beyond his years for his entire life,” Mindy said. “From the outside, he appears a normal, healthy, happy young man and he manages extremely well. I would say almost all people who do not live with the disease or are not a parent of someone with the disease do not understand what it takes to accomplish the things he has.”
Lisa Davis, nurse practitioner in the Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology, saw Austin as a patient throughout his youth. It can be hard for families when a child with diabetes transitions into adulthood and parents have to let go, she said. The center has about 1,200 type 1 patients, and it starts working with kids at age 12 on transitioning to greater independence and eventually adulthood.
Even so, parents like Mindy and Mike will always worry about their children being away from home. Are they eating well? Are they watching their blood sugar closely enough?
“There is no other disease where they have to make their own decisions on everything they do,” Lisa said.
Maintaining normal blood sugar requires constant balance of insulin dosing, diet and activity levels. While physical activity is encouraged, it can cause blood sugar to change a lot, said Dr. Bradley Van Sickle, Austin’s endocrinologist at Akron Children’s.
“There’s such family focus on the disease when kids are younger, and then when they get older, they have to be able to function independently successfully,” Dr. Van Sickle said. “Sometimes it’s a challenge because parents are so involved from the beginning.”
Even with technological advances in glucose testing and insulin delivery, it takes work to manage the disease, he said.
“The tools are so much better. Kids can do very well and not have chronic complications,” he said. “There’s no reason they can’t live to be 80 or 90.”
Lisa said it’s hard saying goodbye to long-time patients like Austin when they age out of the Akron Children’s system.
“They’re kind of like our children. We watch them grow up, we see all their milestones,” she said.
“Austin never let diabetes stop him. He lives life to the fullest, and he’s not afraid to shine.”