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Fourth-grader learns to live with diabetes

Inspiring Granite Bay girl raises awareness about disease
By: Eileen Wilson Special to The Press-Tribune
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Watching Gabrielle Zegers play with her Labradoodle, Nellie, you’d guess both girl and dog were the very picture of health. You’d be only half right. Gabrielle, a fourth-grade student at Eureka Elementary in Granite Bay, has battled Type 1 diabetes since she was 5. Type 1, also known as juvenile onset diabetes, is a disease that has no specific known cause, and no cure. But Gabrielle doesn’t let the disease get her down. Quite the opposite, in fact. She’s on a mission to teach others about diabetes. Her recent endeavor to educate people will culminate in a documentary, “Sounding the Alarm: Diabetes in the Valley,” that will air on PBS at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 8. Gabrielle looks like your typical pre-teen. With a brown skirt that matches long, russet hair, no one would guess a pink T-shirt hides an upper-arm needle and tube that feeds her insulin from a pump. Tucked in to a color-coordinated purse, which was hand crafted by grandma, Gabrielle’s pump delivers life-saving medicine. But Gabrielle didn’t always handle her medication with such aplomb. Delivering daily insulin injections and testing blood was a trial for Gabrielle’s mother, Madelon Zegers. “We had wrestling matches. I had to wrestle her down to the floor to draw blood,” she said of the sugar-testing process that is a daily occurrence for diabetics. But in the last couple years, Gabrielle has learned to manage her illness, and to lead an average kids’ life – almost. “I do P.E.,” Gabrielle said. “But when your blood sugar drops, I get a sugary taste, my knees start to shake, and I start to get drowsier and drowsier – it’s like someone’s putting a weight on you.” Madelon Zegers helps her daughter manage her condition, and also helps Gabrielle educate students at school. “The first week of school, we do a little presentation to the class,” Madelon Zegers said. The duo shares information about symptoms, shows kids the insulin pump and also the testing kit. “It takes the mystery out of it,” she said. “We tell them what diabetes does, and that you can’t just catch it, and you won’t die from it.” Educating the public about diabetes is key for the family. “There are millions of people who are pre-diabetic and don’t even know it,” said Kelly Peterson, KVIE producer of the documentary. “Meaning they are on the verge of becoming diabetic – if you ignore this disease, you can die,” she said. Peterson explained the disease, if left untreated, can cause heart attacks, stroke, amputation, blindness and other complications. Every member of the Zegers family was on board and willing to be a part of the documentary, including dad, Chris Zegers, who is a Kaiser physician, and little sister, Anneke, a second-grade student at Greenhills Elementary in Granite Bay. “They had to follow me around for three days of filming,” Gabrielle said of the documentary crew. “It was pretty cool.” The crew filmed Gabrielle at school and during various doctor visits, to fully explore the life of a child with diabetes. And Gabrielle is one active child. With her involvement in her school’s Destination Imagination team, fencing lessons, girl scouts, and art projects, Gabrielle kept the crew constantly on the move. Chris Zegers is on the board of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the entire family raises money for research by participating in the JDRF walk every year, along with 40 friends and family members who have joined Gabrielle’s walking team. “We’ve raised from $4,000 to $6,000 a year,” Madelon Zegers said. “And 87 percent goes to actual research.” Gabrielle is excited about diabetes receiving the attention the disease deserves. “Diabetes isn’t fun, but it’s not a trap,” she said. “I hope they find a cure, because I don’t want to have it anymore.” What: Sounding the Alarm: Diabetes in the Valley When: 7 p.m. Wed. April 8; 6 p.m. Sun. April 12 Where: KVIE public television, Channel 6