Feature

Living with type 1: Local elementary student doesn’t let diabetes hold her back

FAITH, HOPE, LOVE AND INSULIN — Above, nine-year-old Mckenna Aalbers holds her unicorn purse, which she takes everywhere with her. The purse stores diabetic medical supplies and sugary snacks that Mckenna needs throughout the day.

By Gabby Christensen
Mckenna Aalbers, daughter of Drew and Kim Schaefer of Albion, doesn’t know what life would be like to not have type 1 diabetes.
The nine-year-old was first diagnosed with the chronic condition when she was just 13 months old.
Her family found out after a wicked spell of uncontrollable sickness.
Mckenna was rushed to the emergency room, where she was promptly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
The doctors said her pancreas, which was producing some insulin for her first year of life, had completely shut down.
“Receiving that news was absolutely terrifying,” Kim Schaefer said. “The doctors kept her for five days to get her levels under control. They taught us how to give her shots and I had such a difficult time. I couldn’t bring myself to stab my one-year-old baby with a needle. No one wants to do that. But I had to learn so that I could take care of my child.”
Shortly after being diagnosed, Mckenna received an insulin pump which administers insulin directly into her body.
By the time she was preschooler, Mckenna knew how to test her finger on her own and also run her insulin pump by herself.
Today, Mckenna has learned how to do almost everything by herself.
She still uses a pump, as well as a Dexcom, which is a continuous glucose monitoring system.
When the Dexcom shows that her levels are high, Mckenna double checks by testing on her fingers.
She also has regular doctor visits every three months.
Throughout the day, Mckenna visits the nurse’s office four times and receives insulin each time she eats.
Now a fourth grader at Boone Central, Mckenna said the condition is just something that has always been part of her life—but she hasn’t let it slow her down.
Mckenna enjoys volleyball, softball, drawing and writing her own books.
Mckenna’s father, Drew, said he’s learned so much about the condition over the years.
“Before Mckenna, I was like a lot of people,” Drew Schaefer said. “I knew what diabetes was but I didn’t realize it was this involved. It’s a very complicated condition and it’s definitely a family effort. As a parent, you’re always watching her and looking for signs to make sure you stay one step ahead of it. Even her little sister, Evy, knows what to do if there’s an emergency and we’re not around.”
According to the Schaefers, one of the biggest misconceptions about type 1 diabetes is that those who have this condition are restricted when it comes to their diet. However, as long as necessary steps are followed, those with type 1 diabetes can eat what they want.
“It’s also been difficult to hear people say, ‘well at least it’s just diabetes,’” Kim Schaefer said. “Yes, it’s manageable, but people don’t see what she goes through each day. It’s not something that goes away and we still have scares after all these years.”
While the condition has certainly presented a number of struggles, the Schaefers said it’s also taught their daughter responsibility and to be aware of her own body.
“We’ve been very fortunate for the people who have come into our lives who have type 1 diabetes,” Kim Schaefer said. “They’ve really been able to help us. We’ve also met so many supportive families, even just in our own community. We are so grateful for the support from families throughout our community and for the school administration for giving her such great care.”
In the end, the Schaefers said the condition is just one part of who Mckenna is and they celebrate her courage and strength every year on May 26, which marks her diabetic birthday.
Next summer, Mckenna will attend summer camp with other children who are also living with type 1 diabetes.
As for the future, Mckenna has big plans.
“Someday, I want to be a diabetic scientist,” Mckenna said. “I want to find the cure for diabetes and also find cures for all sorts of other diseases and conditions, too.”
Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of stories in honor of National Diabetes Awareness Month.