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Jewish Journal

Preteen Advocate Educates Nation About Diabetes

by Nancy Sokoler Steiner

August 21, 2003 | 8:00 pm

At first glance, Emma Klatman's summer vacation sounds like that of a typical 11 year old. She attended summer camp and traveled to Washington, D.C. Instead of merely a participant at camp, however, Klatman was a featured speaker. And in our nation's capitol, she came not to sightsee but to lobby legislators.

Klatman serves as the American Diabetes Association's (ADA) 2003-2004 national youth advocate. Her duties entail promoting research and public policies relating to diabetes, and visiting diabetes summer camps to involve other children in the fight against the disease.

"Emma acts as an ambassador on behalf of all children with diabetes," said Stewart Perry, chair of the ADA's National Government Relations and Advocacy Committee. "She puts a face on diabetes in children."

Perry accompanied Klatman on her recent legislative visits in Washington, D.C., where she urged Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and aides to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Diane Watson (D-Culver City) to increase funding for research and to insure that diabetes medications be covered under Medicare.

Adapting to her new role like a pro, Klatman presented her case to a supportive Feinstein as the senator walked from her office to a hearing.

"People don't want to talk to kids when they're in a hurry, but she did," Klatman said.

Klatman's interest in acting (she also attended the Youth Academy for Performing Arts this summer) and a natural poise gives her the confidence to lobby effectively. In one instance, she pulled out her "finger stick" and pricked her finger to show what it's like to check blood sugar -- a constant necessity for those with diabetes.

Visiting diabetes summer camps for children in Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin, Klatman told the young campers that they can also be advocates, whether by helping other children understand how to manage their disease or by contacting a legislator about important issues. She said this enables children to "gain self-esteem and think that you really make a difference."

Perry said that youth advocates like Klatman can be more effective than adults in showing children that they "can live a normal, happy, healthy life with diabetes if they take care of themselves." Her example, he said, shows "this is what you're capable of -- what you can aspire to be."

Klatman was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of 7. She is one of the more than 13,000 American children annually diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes (previously known as juvenile diabetes), which involves a failure by the body to produce insulin. With overweight and inactivity increasing among U.S. children, more cases of Type 2 diabetes are now being seen in children and adolescents. In the past, Type 2 diabetes was considered an adult disease.

Prior to her diagnosis, Klatman experienced symptoms typical of diabetes -- she was drinking and urinating frequently, felt constantly hungry and often fatigued. It was at a Purim celebration at Temple Beth Am that her parents realized something was seriously wrong. Her father, Chris Klatman, recalled noticing that Emma appeared peaked, and assuming that she needed something to eat. He bought her more hamantashen and soda, which only served to further elevate her blood sugar. A trip to the doctor quickly confirmed diabetes, and Emma's life changed from that day forward.

Today, she wears an insulin pump, a blue plastic device that resembles a slightly oversized pager, which is attached to a tube under her skin. The pump automatically administers insulin throughout the day and Klatman presses a button to inject additional insulin based on the food she consumes. She must check her blood sugar levels at least six times a day by pricking her finger and placing a drop of blood in a small device called a glucose meter. Like all people with diabetes, Klatman must keep tight control of blood sugar levels since low levels (hypoglycemia) can lead to loss of consciousness and high levels (hyperglycemia) can eventually cause kidney, nerve, blood vessel and eye damage.

"Sometimes I get so mad that I have to test 10 times a day and I'm not like most kids.... I have something to worry about and they don't," Klatman said.

But she said the process has become routine, and even generates admiration among her peers.

Klatman is quite matter-of-fact about her disease and her ability to accomplish her goals. With her youth advocate duties involving monthly travel, she said, "I'll have to work twice as hard with school, but I'm capable."

In some ways, Klatman's illness seems to take a greater toll on her parents, who believe research -- particularly stem cell research -- may hold the key to the cure for this and other diseases. Until then, her mother, Carol Eisner, noted, "As parents, we're never relaxed. We really deal with life with Emma test by test."

While Emma said she can eat anything, her mother elaborates that "eating is never, ever the same.... It's like keeping strictly kosher: Every single bite that goes into your mouth has thought behind it. For every morsel [you need to ask]: How many carbohydrates does this have and how many units of insulin do I have to give myself for this?"

Because of the frequent need for diabetics to monitor blood sugar levels, one of the ADA's top priorities involves insuring that children with diabetes be allowed to check glucose levels and inject insulin where and when they need to at school, rather than being forced to walk a distance to the nurse's office or another isolated location.

Perry talks about other barriers children with diabetes may encounter in schools. "They've been told they can't play football. They can't be cheerleaders. They can't go on field trips," she said. "We want kids with diabetes to be treated no differently than any other kid -- not segregated and not discriminated against."

Emma reflected on what having diabetes means to her.

"I don't like to refer to myself as a diabetic. I refer to myself as someone with diabetes. It's something that [requires me to do] more in my life. But I'm still Emma."

For more information on diabetes, e-mail nya@diabetes.org  or call 1-800-342-2383.

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