Kaleb Dahlgren recalls being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age four. “After about four months of rebelling, I finally accepted it and realized I needed to have the needles and take care of myself to survive.” For the 23-year-old, that positive attitude eventually helped him overcome the pain of being a survivor of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash in 2018.
Taking control early in life
Raised in Moose Jaw and Saskatoon, Kaleb was encouraged early on by his parents (both nurses) to develop healthy food habits and take an active role in managing his diabetes. “In Grade 4, I started giving myself insulin injections at lunch. At 13, I took over my diabetes care, and my parents helped only when I needed it. I felt independent and was able to get good numbers,” he says.
Kaleb had started playing hockey at age three, before his diagnosis, and has continued to play at elite levels since then. That meant learning how to change his diabetes care to meet the physical demands of competition and training, which can cause blood sugar levels to fluctuate more dramatically. By working with an endocrinologist, he also figured out an effective formula for food and insulin during and after games. When he was younger, Kaleb says, “Some coaches put question marks around me because of my diabetes. I continued to fight back and prove that you can still chase your dreams and diabetes does not have to stop you from achieving them.”
His positive attitude and coping skills helped after the crash on April 6. He spent 21 days in hospital, recovering from a fractured skull, brain injury, broken vertebrae, and other injuries.
“I used the resiliency I gained from my diabetes experience to fight back and overcome the physical and emotional challenges, which helped with my healing after the accident.”
After he began intensive physiotherapy, his blood sugar levels went “wonky,” he says, so he talked to an endocrinologist about making treatment adjustments. “It’s important to seek extra help if you can’t solve the problem on your own.” (To learn more about managing your diabetes during a stay in hospital, visit Guide to Hospital Stays.)
Inspiring kids with diabetes
When Kaleb joined the Broncos in 2017 as a forward and assistant captain, he created Dahlgren’s Diabeauties to show kids with type 1 diabetes that the disease does not have to affect their abilities or stop them from living life to the fullest. At each home game, one child was treated like a star, including wearing the Dahlgren's Diabeauties jersey for the night and dropping the puck in a ceremonial faceoff. After the game, he met with the child’s family, and at a later date, visited their school to give a speech about diabetes and create awareness. All of the kids became part of the Diabeauties Facebook private group chat, and he remains in contact with them today.
“It was amazing to see the impact this had on their lives,” Kaleb says. “One young boy, who was super-shy and tried to hide his diabetes, spoke in front of the whole school about it.”
Kaleb received Diabetes Canada’s 2019 Kurt Kroesen National Inspiration Award, which recognizes an individual or family who has overcome great odds to manage their diabetes and who continue to live a fulfilling, active, and inspiring life. “Kaleb is a cool guy in [kids’] lives and gives them strength. Parents see they can put their kids into hockey, soccer, and other sports safely, without holding them back,” says Sherri Pockett, who nominated Kaleb for the volunteer award. She sits on the Professonal Section Executive, and is a former Diabetes Canada Diabetes Educator of the Year, and secretary of the Winnipeg professional chapter.
Fuel for the soul
Kaleb is now a graduate of York University in Toronto, where he trained with the hockey team, took on a recruiting role, helped with strength and conditioning, and sat as a team representative on the varsity student council, a member of the Black and Indigenous Varsity Student-Athlete Alliance, and volunteered with HEROSHockey every week. He earned a degree in commerce, and his career goal is to become a chiropractor, specializing in sports. “I’d like to use my knowledge and experience as a chiropractor to work with elite athletes on professional and university teams,” he says.
He also continued the Dahlgren’s Diabeauties program at home games for the York Lions (the university’s hockey team). “It helps me feel like I am making a difference in our world, and the smiles on the children’s faces make it all worthwhile,” he says. “I found that, after the accident, giving back helped me heal.”
HarperCollins recently published Kaleb’s memoir Crossroads, which chronicles his life from birth up to August 2019. Kaleb’s diabetes journey is intertwined throughout this national bestseller, along with stories about family, resilience and hope. He has received support from many friends, including T1D trailblazer and former professional hockey player Bobby Clarke.
Here are two tips from Sherri Pockett, a certified diabetes educator, and Kaleb Dahlgren, who lives with type 1 diabetes, to help you cope with stress and minimize its effects on your blood sugar levels:
• “When you’re under stress, check your blood glucose [sugar] more often, stay hydrated, eat regularly, and keep moving if you can. Any time you need some help managing, reach out to your diabetes team or health-care provider for help and advice,” says Sherri.
• “Control the things you can control. I can’t control having diabetes or being involved in a tragic bus accident. But I can control how I respond to these kinds of stressful events. Always find the positive, be adaptable, and live life to the absolute fullest,” says Kaleb.
Did you know?
Diabetes Canada, along with Banting House National Historic Site, partnered with the Royal Canadian Mint on the release of a commemorative coin marking the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin by Canadian researchers. Kaleb and others in the diabetes community also took part. We can't wait another 100 years to End Diabetes. #LetsEndDiabetes
This article originally appeared in Diabetes Dialogue, Autumn 2019.
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