#TGW: Living With Type 1 Diabetes

Volleyball's Ashley Askin doesn't let Type 1 diabetes define her. She was diagnosed with the disease when she was 7.
Oct. 12, 2016

By Justin Fedich | The Good Word

Inspired by three Yellow Jacket student-athletes living with diabetes, on Saturday, October 15, the Georgia Tech Athletic Association will participate in the Juvenile Diabetes Walk at Centennial Olympic Park. Click HERE for more info. 

Her parents, Denise and John, who each played basketball and football, respectively, at Notre Dame, weren't going to let Askin use diabetes as an excuse to derail her from her goals. 

"You've got five minutes to cry, and then you've got to get up and you've got to get tough," Askin's mother Denise would say. "You can't cry about the things that you can't change."

It made Askin mad when her mother told her over and over again to stop crying. "Why can't I cry," she thought. Now, she knows why crying would have done her no good.  

Askin, a 21-year-old outside hitter for the Georgia Tech volleyball team, has a positive outlook on life, a mindset shaped by her tough-minded parents and three siblings. She understands that unless a cure is found, she will have Type 1 diabetes for the rest of her life, and that will not change. But she won't whine or complain about it, no matter how much of a burden it is on her daily schedule. 

To make sure she stays as healthy as possible, Askin takes an average of six shots a day and checks her blood 10 times a day, both of which are time consuming for a student athlete schedule that already doesn't allow for much down time. Through it all, she keeps a smile on her face, knowing that these are the cards she was dealt and it's up to her to make the most of it.

Askin is a 6-foot-1 junior from Louisville, Kentucky, and she thrives in a role that requires her to leap above the net on a regular basis. Fourteen years ago, Askin could barely walk.  

When Askin was 7 years old, she thought she was going to die. 

Askin was sapped of all her energy. She was bedridden for weeks, unable stand up without vomiting. It was the winter, and everyone in Askin's family had caught the flu. As they all started to get better, Askin's condition only worsened.

A blood sample determined Askin needed to be rushed to the hospital as quickly as possible. Before she knew it, Askin was alone in the back of an ambulance, feeling weak and afraid for what was to come. 

She was so dehydrated when she reached the hospital, the doctors couldn't find any of her veins. They stuck eight IVs in her to get her hydrated again, and eventually Askin fell asleep. When she awoke, she finally learned what had been ailing her.    

"They told me I had diabetes, but at 7 years old, I didn't know what that meant," Askin said. "I heard [the first syllable of diabetes] `die' and I think I'm dying."

It wasn't too long before a nurse reaffirmed Askin that Type 1 diabetes is not a terminal illness, but she was told she was going to live with diabetes for the rest of her life. Askin was forced to miss months of school afterwards, as she learned to treat her diabetes and cope with the fact that this is something she wasn't getting rid of. 

While the official cause of Type 1 diabetes is still unknown, genetic and environmental factors are involved. 

It's an autoimmune disease in which immune system attacks itself and destroys insulin producing cells in pancreas, beta cells, which is vital to survival. Less than 10 percent of people with diabetes have Type 1.

In 2007, when Askin was 11, she wrote a letter to U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, from her home state of Kentucky, expressing her desire to be a representative from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation to help lobby Congress to renew a bill urging increased funding for juvenile Type 1 diabetes research. Askin was chosen as one of two JDRF representatives in her state, and met with McConnell and others in Washington, D.C.

Askin said if the bill wasn't renewed, it would have set back juvenile diabetes research 10 years. Although she was still young at the time, Askin was determined to speak before Congress and have her voice heard.

She received some inspiration from McConnell, who made an effort to seek Askin out personally when she arrived in Washington. McConnell, who overcame his own battle with polio as a child, shared his story with Askin.

"I'm going to sign this bill because I want you to be able to say you had diabetes before there was a cure. I'm able to say I had polio before there was a cure," McConnell said.

The next day, Askin sat before a panel of seven professional athletes, all of whom played different sports and all of whom had Type 1 diabetes. Askin learned that it isn't easy to play professional sports with Type 1 diabetes, but it's not impossible.

"Maybe we can find a cure," Askin thought.  "Maybe this won't be something I'll have for my whole life."

It gave Askin renewed hope that she could excel at sports at a high level. Her sport at the time was basketball, and some of her favorite childhood memories include playing basketball with her older sister Sarah, older brother John Michael and younger sister Jacqueline. The games would get heated and sometimes lead to fights, but the competitive nature of the Askins only helped make each other better.

After the panel of athletes spoke, Askin and the 300 others who were in attendance had a chance to write down questions for the athletes. Askin's question was read aloud. She recalls meeting an ESPN reporter after the discussion, and the reporter gave Askin yet another vote of confidence that she could someday become a Division-I college athlete like her parents. 

"I'm going to be interviewing you on ESPN one day," the reporter said to Askin.

That's when it clicked for Askin. Diabetes wasn't going to hold her back from becoming a college athlete. At the time, however, Askin didn't know it would be in volleyball. 

Askin didn't start playing volleyball until eighth grade. She attended Sacred Heart Academy in Louisville, an all-girls Catholic school known for having a strong volleyball program. When Askin made the varsity team as a freshman, she knew it was time to devote her full attention to volleyball. 

As an underclassman, Askin started playing club volleyball and went on recruiting trips with London Ackermann, who played for Sacred Heart's rival Assumption. Ackermann is now a senior volleyball player at Georgia Tech. 

Notre Dame had offered Askin a scholarship, but Askin was sold on Georgia Tech after visiting its campus and meeting the coaches. She committed to play for the Yellow Jackets at the end of her sophomore year. 

Once she arrived at Georgia Tech her freshman year of college, everything changed. A new coaching staff was beginning its first year and on top of that, Askin was learning how to manage her diabetes with a loaded schedule. 

Askin said she could have gone to another school once she learned the coaches were just as new as she was to Georgia Tech. But that's not in her DNA. 

"Part of the reason I decided to stick it through is I feel like anything that's thrown at me, I can get through it, Askin said. 

Askin said she didn't choose Georgia Tech just for its volleyball program. She wanted to earn the best education possible because as a Type 1 diabetic, something could always go wrong to prevent her from playing the sport she loves and she would need a fallback plan. 

She experienced a small dose of that earlier this season, when Yellow Jackets fans packed the arena for the Georgia Tech-Georgia game. Askin was coming off a strong game the day before and was excited for the opportunity to take down the in-state rival. She got sick the morning of the game, however.

Askin said when she gets sick, even if it's something minor, she needs to go to the hospital because she's a diabetic. After four hours in the hospital, Askin returned later that day for the pregame meal but was forced to sit out of the game due to illness. 

It was crushing for Askin to watch from the bench during a game she looks forward to every season, but she's learned how to deal with this type of adversity before.

"It's just one of those things you have to get over it and look to the next one," Askin said. 

Askin is studying marketing with a minor in psychology and she hopes to go into sports marketing. She also wants to be a part of the continued fight to cure Type 1 diabetes. This fall, Georgia Tech's Student Athlete Advisory Board, which Askin is a member of, is hoping to take part in the annual JDRF walk to support Type 1 diabetes research. 

Finding a cure to Type 1 diabetes might still be years away, but Askin has learned it's not something that's going to bring her down. It's a part of her identity, she says, but it doesn't define her. How she handles it is what defines her. 

Askin doesn't lay in bed crying about something she can't change anymore, but she knows there are children with Type 1 diabetes who might think their disease is going to hold them back. 

The message Askin wants to give those children stems from the same tough love her mother gave her as a child.

"You can't let the disease beat you," Askin said. "You have to battle every day and fight through it. It's something that's always going to be there, and if you can wrap your mind around that, you'll understand that nothing in life is constant except for the fact that it's always going to be changing."