CHAPEL HILL -- On Jeremy Ackerman's 15th birthday, he learned that he had diabetes. His parents were dismayed, but young Ackerman set out to learn more about the disease and to learn how to manage it so he could still do the things he wanted to do.
He strongly believes that people with diabetes -- especially younger ones -- need to know that the disease, while serious, doesn't have to limit them and that they "can do almost anything they want." To make that point, he and 15 other Type 1 diabetic athletes from around the world will travel to Argentina Dec. 26 to climb Cerro Aconcagua, which, with a summit of 22,830 feet, is the highest point in the Western Hemisphere.
Eleven years after the diagnosis, the Maryland native is a University of North Carolina M.D.-Ph.D. candidate with aspirations to surgery and a graduate degree in biomedical engineering. But he still finds time for the outdoor activities he loves. He's an experienced backpacker and trekker and has even dabbled in rock climbing -- all this while successfully managing his glucose levels.
Ackerman, who admits that he was something of a terror to doctors in the early years of his disease, is now better able to understand doctor and family concerns about diabetes management. A founding member of the group, IDEA2000 -- or the International Diabetic Expedition to Aconcagua - the medical student says the goal of the ambitious project, which has been in the planning stages for more than two years, is three-fold.
"We want to raise awareness of diabetes and to inspire diabetics to achieve their goals," he says. "We want to raise $2.1 million to support diabetes care in underserved parts of Latin America, and, while we're doing all this, conduct scientific research on altitude's effects on diabetics and diabetes management."
The experience should also be a lot of fun, he says. Group members traveling to Argentina represent a variety of mountaineering skill levels, according to Ackerman.
"A few are like me with a limited amount of experience. Others are very experienced mountaineers, like the director of the group and another climber from Spain," he says. "That's why there will be two teams heading up the mountain -- the 'summiting' group doing a challenging technical climb and the less experienced 'trekking' group following a non-technical route supporting the other climbers and the research effort.
What members have in common is their understanding of their disease, Ackerman says. "Most of us are aware that you can do just about anything when you have diabetes. The hard part is knowing what issues to address and plan for. For example, insulin can freeze, which not only makes it impossible to inject but also renders it less effective. Insulin also stops working if it gets too warm."
When the small electronic blood glucose meter used to measure sugar levels is taken to higher altitudes, the chemistry of the device changes. LCD displays and batteries present in watches, blood glucose meters and insulin pumps also are sensitive to the cold -- potentially affecting insulin delivery and diabetes management. Climbers worry about their insulin pumps failing much more than their watches.
"When you get into the mountains, there's a whole range of effects on your physiology," Ackerman says. "There are all these factors, some not completely understood, that interact with diabetes. We have to decide how to control variables like how much insulin to take, how much food to eat and how much activity we can do. Some things we do from experience, and sometimes, we have to guess what will happen."
As the project evolved, IDEA2000 came up with programs for tax-deductible donations, including sales of special T-shirts (delivered personally by Ackerman to save shipping costs to buyers). In addition, donors of $10 or more will be sent a postcard from the team in Argentina. Those who donate $100 or more will receive a prayer flag, which is like the small, lightweight flags mountaineers carry. "The idea is that we're carrying your hopes and dreams with us," he adds.
The above story is based on materials provided by University Of North Carolina At Chapel Hill. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
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