Clovis girl asks Congress to support diabetes research

Fresno BeeJuly 7, 2013 

At right, Shannon Briggs administers a blood sugar test to her daughter Lala Briggs, a 6-year-old from Clovis. Lala will be among 150 children and teens from around the country traveling to Washington, D.C., July 8-10 to remind Congress to support funding for research that aims to reduce the burden they all share living with type 1 diabetes (T1D), until a cure becomes available. Lala and her family have come through many challenges. Lala was diagnosed at the age of one, her father, Shiloh, an Army major and Blackhawk Pilot, decided to stay in the Army, in part to maintain health insurance. During his deployments, Lala's mother managed the girl's diabetes on her own, while also caring for Lala's ailing grandfather. While Type 2 diabetes is epidemic in the central San Joaquin Valley among adults, more are being diagnosed with Type I, which used to be called "childhood onset" diabetes because it almost always developed before adulthood.

MARK CROSSE — Fresno Bee Staff Photo Buy Photo

Julianna Briggs watched as her mother pricked her right big toe and squeezed a drop of blood. “Ow,” she barely uttered.

Julianna, who turns 6 in August, has had Type 1 diabetes since she was 1. Toe pricks to check blood sugar levels are part of the Clovis girl’s daily life, and this poke was just another she has learned to accept without complaint.

It’s easier now that she is older it’s easier for Julianna to understand that blood tests and insulin shots are necessary to control her diabetes, parents Shannon and Shiloh Briggs said. “But the disease doesn’t get easier,” her mother said.

That message is what the family wants Congress to hear. Today through Wednesday, Julianna will be one of 150 children and teens from across the country who are meeting in Washington, D.C., to ask lawmakers to support funding for diabetes treatment research.

“We do hope for a cure,” Shiloh Briggs said. However, that’s in the future, said Shannon Briggs. “Right now, we want a better, easier way to manage it.”

A cranky, lethargic baby

Julianna, who her parents call “Lala,” was diagnosed with diabetes just two weeks after her first birthday.

She had been cranky, lethargic and nursing nonstop for three days when they took her to Children’s Hospital Central California.

Shannon Briggs, 38, feared her daughter had leukemia and was somewhat relieved when doctors said Julianna had Type 1 diabetes.

But no one in the family had diabetes, and her parents thought it could be controlled by diet, a typical treatment for people with Type 2 diabetes whose bodies produce some insulin. The body needs insulin to convert food into fuel.

Julianna, however, had Type 1 diabetes, and her pancreas had stopped releasing insulin.

Her parents expected Julianna to be treated quickly and sent home, but she spent five days in intensive care and came home with vials of insulin, syringes and a blood glucose monitor.

Shiloh Briggs said they realize now that Julianna “could have died that day in the hospital.”

And once home, they had to learn how to keep her alive.

Several times a day, Shannon and Shiloh Briggs had to check their baby’s blood sugar and give her eight to 10 shots of insulin. She had to eat, whether hungry or not, when her blood sugar dipped too low.

“She never had a full nap — ever,” Shannon Briggs said of the regimen of toe pricks, insulin shots and feedings.

The family developed a routine, with Julianna’s father initially taking responsibility for checking Julianna’s blood sugar at night and giving nighttime shots when necessary. “Every night is different,” Shiloh Briggs said.

But Shannon Briggs soon had to take over the nightly patrol.

Shiloh Briggs, 37, an Army lieutenant colonel and helicopter pilot with the aviation brigade in Fresno, was deployed for a second yearlong tour to Iraq. He remains in the military in part to maintain the family’s health insurance and because he enjoys his career.

But that deployment was hard on both parents.

“I barely hung on that year,” Shannon Briggs said.

“I almost didn’t think I would make it through that deployment,” Shiloh Briggs said.

Hope for help and cure

Today, Julianna can help her parents with her diabetes control, reading the number on a continuous glucose monitor that checks her blood sugar every five minutes. The monitor beeps if her blood sugar falls dangerously low.

Julianna still has to have toe pricks — she doesn’t like finger sticks — to check her blood glucose levels, but the monitor has made a difference, Shannon Briggs said: “It literally has saved her from having diabetic lows and having seizures.”

Julianna also wears an insulin pump, a device about the size of a cell phone that continuously delivers insulin so she doesn’t have to have numerous shots each day. The pump is attached to a thin, plastic tube with a needle at the end. Julianna prefers the patch holding the needle to be on her buttocks.

The kindergartner has learned to alert her parents when she feels “shaky” and may need an extra boost of insulin, which her parents give by pushing a button on the insulin pump.

Technology has made life easier for young patients and their families, said Dr. Swati Banerjee, a pediatric endocrinologist at Children’s Hospital.

The next <treatment breakthrough will be development of an artificial pancreas, which would combine an insulin pump with a sensor that would measure blood sugar levels and give insulin as needed. An artificial pancreas “is the biggest goal in the short-term future to make a tremendous change for our families with Type 1 diabetes,” Banerjee said.

Shiloh Briggs holds out hope for research around transplanting islet cells, which are the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, but knows that is far into the future.

Julianna was picked as one of the 150 JDRF Children’s Congress delegates to go to Washington this week from a letter Briggs wrote to the organization about his daughter. JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) has brought children and parents to the nation’s capital since 1999 to tell their stories in a push to continue federal funding for diabetes research.

Briggs said Julianna is a spitfire. She has competed in vaulting — gymnastic moves atop a horse — since she was 3. Her mother said she is spoiled, but it’s because she is the baby of the family and the only daughter, not because she has diabetes.

On a recent afternoon, Julianna scampered around the family living room in between toe sticks, snacks and getting a boost of insulin from the pump. Crawling onto the back of her father’s shoulders, she giggled as he shook her off and then ran to play with big brothers, Justus, 14, and Tristan, 11.

Briggs said he wants Julianna to accept that she has diabetes and not let it deter her from achieving her goals. “I want her to develop an attitude that this is just who you are,” he said. “This is your badge and you have to wear it proudly.”

 

Support and resources

--Central Valley Parents of Children With Type 1 Diabetes: For information, email trooplala@gmail.com

--JDRF-Central Valley Council (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation): For information, call (661) 636-1305.

 

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6310, banderson@fresnobee.com or @beehealthwriter on Twitter.

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