On the outside, brothers Andrew and Darren Barton are just like any other boy.
Andrew, 16, a sophomore at in San Mateo, takes honors classes, runs cross-country and track, and plays basketball. Darren, 11, a sixth-grader in middle school at in San Bruno, loves playing video games on his Xbox, plays football and, like his brother, plays basketball.
Like most boys, they eat a lot. They both have braces.
On the inside, however, they’re both fighting a daily battle that most don’t see or understand.
Both Andrew and Darren have Type 1 diabetes, an auto-immune disease in which a person's pancreas stops producing insulin. It affects both children and adults and, in some cases, can be fatal.
“This thing is not something where you just take a pill or take insulin,” said Mike Barton, the boys’ father. “It’s a big deal.”
The San Bruno boys, along with seven other youth from throughout the Bay Area, are now working with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) as ambassadors for the organization’s upcoming Walk to Cure Diabetes, an event that aims to raise awareness about Type 1 diabetes and raise money for research.
As ambassadors, the brothers have been going around the Bay Area to educate people about what it is like living with Type 1 diabetes and clearing up myths about the disease—something they’ve had to do for a long time now.
A ‘traumatizing’ diagnosis
While Andrew is the oldest, Darren was actually the first one diagnosed with the disease. When he was just 15 months old, he caught a cold that lingered longer than normal, so his parents took him to the doctor.
No one knew what was going on with Darren, and after multiple doctor’s office visits and tests, Darren was rushed to the emergency room at the UC-San Francisco hospital.
Mia Barton, Darren’s mom, said they were told he had been within 24 hours of going into a coma.
“It was traumatizing,” she said.
Andrew was diagnosed when he was 10. Almost overnight, he had gone from being an energetic and playful kid to wanting to do nothing but sit around all the time. Having some experience dealing with his brother’s symptoms before, his parents took him to the hospital.
A doctor told them that there was a 5 percent chance that siblings could both get Type 1 diabetes - and sure enough, that’s what happened to Andrew.
Type 1 diabetes doesn’t run in their family and no one knows why some people get the disease. Andrew’s diagnosis was another devastating blow.
‘It is what it is’
Nevertheless, somehow, the brothers and their family have found a way to stay positive about things.
“When I first got diagnosed, I was like, ‘If [Darren] had it, I can do it,’” Andrew said. “He’s kind of a role model for me because he’s the one I can look up to for advice.”
In a way, the brothers have found it easier to cope with their disease because they both have it and they have learned what to do to maintain it everyday.
That connection doesn’t mean every day is easy. In fact, each day is a gamble—between the 12 to 15 pricks they have to take on their fingers to check their blood sugar to counting carbohydrates in their food to having to wear insulin packs all the time, and with both parents actively involved in making sure everything is taken care of, life can be a tricky balance for the family.
What is most frustrating is when they have to explain to others what they are going through.
Darren said jokingly that one of his classmates once thought his insulin pack, which is about the size of a cell phone and clips to his pants, was an iPod and told the teacher on him.
Another kid, he said, thought he was a robot.
Andrew has had similar experiences, with some people being even more insulting. On several occasions during sports matches, people have mistaken his insulin pack for a steroids device.
Little did they know how those experiences have just motivated Andrew to excel at everything he does. And he still keeps a positive attitude about things, a lesson his dad has always stressed.
“As much as it sucks, it is what it is,” Andrew said, taking from the motto his dad adopted for the family when he was first diagnosed. “[Type 1 diabetes] has given me problems, but it’s also given me experiences that other people that don’t have diabetes don’t have.”
Getting out the message
What remains important for the boys and their family is that the message continues to get out there about a disease that affects as many as 3 million Americans.
That’s why Darren said he is still hopeful, even though he has had to deal with the affects of Type 1 diabetes all of his life.
He said he wants people to know that the disease is not a death sentence, and that it is possible to still have a life. Once more people understand that, he said, the message will be even clearer.
“I want people to know that we have to band together to find a cure,” he said.
To learn more about Andrew and Darren's team for the Walk to Cure Diabetes, which will take place Oct. 7 at California's Great America, visit the JDRF Bay Area Chapter website.