Thursday, April 28, 2011

Tom Youkilis: Diabetes Leads to Romance

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"I started out as a child," Tom Youkilis told me to start, and I could tell our interview was going to be interesting.  If you live in Glendale, Ohio, and know Tom you know you can expect good humor pretty much any time you meet him.

Tom is about to celebrate 44 years as a diabetic (and I use the word "celebrate" purposely), having been diagnosed in 1967, when he was a seventh grader at Walnut Hills (grades 7-12).  "I remember very specifically, drinking a lot of water," he says when asked about the events of that fateful day, "and had a cousin who was a diabetic."  His mom recognized the warning signs, sent for a testing kit, and the urine made the strip turn "a bright orange."

Suddenly, at 13, you're a diabetic, when being 13 is hard enough.  In those days, too, you really didn't have many treatment options.  You had to soak your syringes in alcohol and took one daily shot and then you kind of operated in the dark, not knowing for sure when you were going high or low.  Even Tom's doctor--and a good one--wasn't always sure what Tom needed to do.  "His philosophy was eat whatever you want" and try to lead a normal life.  So the teenage version of Tom carried candy in his pocket in case he felt low and ate pizza at night when he wanted to.  He did watch his food, mostly, it was just harder then to tell how you were doing.

Tom feels his mother did him a great service when he was first diagnosed.  She decided not to baby him and told him "it was my disease to deal with" and so he did.  It wasn't that she didn't care or didn't want to help.  She just wanted him to be independent and learn to handle the problems that go along with this disease for himself.

The plan has been working now for more than four decades.  Tom attended the University of Cincinnati, in those days as part of a Vocational Rehabilitation program, funded by the federal government, which paid his tuition because type-1 diabetes was classified as a disability.  For two years after graduation he did public accounting, but "detested it."  Then, in 1978, he went to work at Proctor and Gamble and has been there ever since.  His work as a purchasing manager has taken him as far as China on business, and he says P & G is selling plenty of detergent, hair care products and diapers in the dynamic Chinese market.

In his 20s Tom took an interest in the efforts of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund.  He worked of fund-raising efforts and tried to call children and families who had recently received the dread diagnosis and assure them they'd be okay.  "It's not the end of the world," he liked to explain, just as a friend of his mother had explained to her, back in 1967, when Tom was diagnosed.  The disease can be managed; that's what he meant. 

Research, funded in large part through JDRF efforts, developed new and improved methods for treating the disease.  By 1982, Tom was president of the local JDRF chapter and soon organized the first big Bike-a-Thon event (at 13 different locations) to ever bring in $100,000 in donations.

There was a bonus, too.  One day Tom was attending a JDRF fund-raiser, when in walked Alison Zaring, a woman he had gone out with once, but hadn't necessarily impressed.  ((Maybe he had:  he just wasn't sure.)  Alison turned out to be the sister of Anne Zaring, another leader in the Cincinnati branch of JDRF and when she realized Tom had an interest in her sister, "she was immediately in my corner."  I should have asked Alison what she thought...whether she knew Tom was "The One," from the start.  Tom had no doubt.  Alison had a "magic about her" and the romance was officially launched.

It seems counter-intuitive to say, "I'm a type-1 diabetic and I've been lucky," but that's what Tom says.  "It's not the end of the world," as he puts it.  "I certainly wouldn't want any of my kids to get it," he hastens to add.  Yet he's had good control for 44 years.  He's had some eye problems which might have been serious twenty years ago.  Improved medical care has helped him, and he's had laser surgery to correct other problems, but otherwise "basic overall good health."

That's why I say he's celebrating:  Tom and Alison married and had three kids, Jordan, about to graduate from Indiana University, and assured a job with General Electric, where his degree in financial management and skills with Mandarin should prove invaluable.  Daughter Ashley is a professional photographer (following in the artistic footsteps of her mom), and Tom's stepdaughter Kara is living in San Diego and a few days ago presented them with their first grandchild, a little girl.

Tom Youkilis has seen great changes in the years he's been diabetic.  He has started and raised a good family.  He has handled his disease, and says the magic in his marriage "is still there."  He's on a continuous glucose monitor today, and this has made his life much easier.  If he goes too high or too low an alarm sounds and he corrects his blood sugar.

If he had to give any advice, he'd tell any diabetic olde enought to understandi, "It really is your own disease and you have to handle it."  You have to be independent and learn how to care for yourself.  It's part of who you are, like being left-handed, or Catholic.  It is what it is.  It's an immutable fact.  So you have to deal with it sucessfully, and Tom Youkilis does. "I get up every morning, brush my teeth, and have a shot," is how he puts it.

He's a type-1 diabetic and also a lucky man.

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