By Evan Wheaton
A little girl is wearing a continuous glucose meter with a bright pink flamingo sticker on it. She points at Lauren Longley.
“Mommy, I want her pump case,” the girl said. “I want to be just like her!”
Longley, a senior at Springfield College, is a member of the swim team. She, like the little girl, has Type 1 diabetes. She lived her entire life free of the chronic condition until after the winter intersession of her freshman year.
“I had all these weird symptoms but they kind of became normal,” Longley said. “I explained it all because of swimming. I was extra tired, extra hungry, extra thirsty, but I’m like, ‘I’m swimming for six hours a day, of course I’m gonna be tired and hungry.’
I came back from intercession for two days and I couldn’t stop eating or drinking no matter what. I was famished and thirsty, all I could think about was, ‘how can I get more water.”
Not being able to fall asleep, Longley went to her parents’ bedroom feeling that something was off. Her mother, being a diabetic, had a glucometer, and her father checked her blood sugar level, reassuring her everything would be fine.
“When the number popped up, I just saw fear across his face,” Longley said. “I’ve never seen him like that. He’s very strong and intelligent, not really emotional, and the fear that overcame him. I knew something was wrong.
He was like, ‘we’re going to have to go to the hospital right now’ and I was like, ‘what?’ I was just so confused, and I asked ‘is there anything else it could be?’ and my life changed in a second.”
The diagnosis occurred the very day before the spring semester started. Longley’s parents were hesitant to have her return to school, insisting that she take a medical leave. After putting in hard work throughout the fall semester, Longley was determined to finish out the season. She met with endocrinologists and certified diabetes educators to explore the option of returning to the classroom and the pool.
“Both my parents were concerned because it was so new,” Longley said. “They didn’t know how swimming would affect me. The doctors helped me work it into my life, they understood it was really important.”
Upon her return to school, the entire team came to Longley asking what they could do for her. She also met with head swimming coach John Taffe to discuss symptoms and what to do in case of emergency, although she keeps a good handle on things herself.
“I don’t need that extra help,” Longley said. “He’ll (Taffe) come over and say, ‘are you okay?’ and if I have to get out of the pool he’ll say, ‘are you okay Lauren?’ so it’s nice that he still treats me like a normal swimmer, which I really appreciate.”
Longley is a normal swimmer. What she isn’t, is a normal student. She has maintained a 4.0 GPA the past two years amidst the long swim seasons that span from September to February. Not only does she balance her time between the classroom and a demanding swim schedule, she’s also there for her teammates.
“She’s always there for you if you need her,” junior Danielle Hoffner said. “I’ll just be talking to her and all of a sudden I’m randomly telling her all my deepest darkest secrets, because she’s just so nice and warm and welcoming. She just radiates love and positivity. She makes you feel like you belong and that you’re supposed to be there.”
The unexpected happened during her junior year in the month of December. During the Ithaca Invitational in Ithaca, N.Y., Longley was competing in the mile when her blood sugar plummeted during the race.
“She had to get out because her blood sugar dropped, so she was afraid in the middle of the race she’d pass out,” Hoffner said. “She got out and everybody on the team surrounded her and was like, ‘are you okay? Who do you need? What do I need to get?’ and people were pulling food out of their bags.”
Longley’s father made his way down and helped the coaches pull her aside to get the spotlight off of her.
“I think that was a turning point in her career,” graduate assistant coach Delaney Dyjak said. “It was just like, ‘oh my God, this is happening.’ Sometimes you really can’t control it and you can’t predict it as much as you prepare and do all of these things.”
Dyjak swam on the team last year before she graduated and was in Longley’s lane. She saw first hand every day how Longley persevered and met all of her goals throughout the years.
“I’m sure she’s really humble about it, but she’s really good in practice, like really good,” Dyjak said. “Wicked fast, strong kicker, the whole nine. She was very motivating to swim in practice with and try to keep up with. I’d have to race to catch her and on top of that, she’s battling all of those external factors. She’s something else.”
As she prepares for graduation, Longley plans on staying involved with the team. Living only a half hour away in Westfield, Mass., she plans on attending as many home events as possible.
When she first enrolled at Springfield College, Longley entered the Physical Therapy program. Her experiences through adjusting to a new lifestyle as a student-athlete with Type 1 diabetes changed her life mission through her inspiration from her doctors and specialists, and she now plans on becoming a nurse that specializes in juvenile diabetes.
“They’re the whole reason why I got back to school and swimming right away,” Longley said. “They totally inspired me. If I can help other people even half as much as they helped me, I’ll feel so rewarded and happy with my life, because I just want to give back, because they gave me so much. I love them, they’ve become an integral part of my life, and I never thought I’d say that.”
Longley didn’t let her diagnosis define her in any negative connotation; she became an advocate. Last summer, Longley spoke at Baystate Endocrinology & Diabetes to incoming freshmen on how to live a perfectly normal college lifestyle as a student-athlete.
“People are scared of exercise and so scared of sports, because they’re afraid of low blood sugar, which happens a lot when you exercise,” Longley said. “A lot of people with diabetes don’t participate in collegiate sports just because of that fear.”
I let it empower me. Rather than shutting down and being embarrassed, because I know a lot of people are, I’m not afraid to tell people that I have it. I’m not afraid to show everyone that I can do whatever I want with it.”
Longley has to wear a t:slim G4 insulin pump at all times, even while she swims. Initially, she felt insecure about it. Though, that attitude didn’t last long.
“Sometimes I would pick my clothes to hide my insulin pump and my continuous glucose monitor (CGM) not out of shame, but just to hide it,” Longley said. “I didn’t want people to look at me as different, but when I shadowed at the pediatric endocrinologist where there were little kids, they were like, ‘mommy I want it to be showing so people can see’ or they’d get the same insulin pump case as me, because they wanted to be like me and they wanted it to show, because it was purple.
That changed my perspective and made me realize how I should rock this with confidence and show it off, because I want other people to see how there’s nothing to be ashamed of, so they know that they can show it with pride. It’s amazing what this technology can do; we shouldn’t be hiding it, we should be showing it.”
As the little girl admired Longley’s purple pump case, there was no better feeling. Unlike the her, however, Longley will keep the sticker duties to the kids, as they tend to fall off in the pool.
Photo courtesy Evan Wheaton