6-year-old finds silver lining to living with Type 1 diabetes

MELROSE — Six-year-old Oliver Ellis is terrified of getting shots, and he’s terrific at math.

Both are a result of his Type 1 diabetes, an ailment diagnosed three years ago. That’s so long ago that Oliver really doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t have to constantly monitor his blood sugar and carry around packs of candy powder, juice boxes and fruit snacks to boost it if it drops too low.

Oliver isn’t shy about his illness. He’s used to explaining it to other kids at Melrose Elementary School, and tends to draw a crowd when he pricks his finger to check his blood sugar.

He was scheduled to give his first speech about his experiences for the Living Well with Diabetes group meeting.

Oliver has Type 1 diabetes. Less common, and potentially more dangerous than Type 2, Type 1 typically shows up during childhood and is likely genetic. Oliver’s pancreas produces no insulin — the substance the body needs to convert food to energy.

For Oliver and his parents, Ben and Nichole Ellis, managing diabetes involves regular monitoring of his blood sugar. If it’s too low, he swallows something sweet. If it’s too high, he gets insulin from a small pod attached to his leg. Another pod on his arm triggers an alert if his blood sugar drops below 80. Really low blood sugar can be deadly. Really high blood sugar could lead to complications down the road.

Oliver was diagnosed on Dec. 21, 2013, four days before Christmas. His parents took him to Mercy Medical Center because he had been drinking unusually large quantities of water and urinating frequently.

“He would drink one glass of water and then scream for another one,” Ben Ellis said.

Oliver was immediately sent to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland by ambulance. The family returned home at midnight Christmas Eve, knowing they had a long road ahead.

A couple weeks later, they had another trip to Mercy. Oliver’s blood sugar had crashed. He collapsed face first onto the living room floor. He couldn’t move or talk, and when they got some juice into him, he projectile vomited. His blood sugar, which they aim to keep between 100 and 200, had dropped to 30.

His terrified parents called 911. They’ve become more used to the illness now, and understand better how to keep his blood sugar more even.

The search for a cure continues. Meanwhile, the Ellises wake up every two hours each night to check their son’s blood sugar. Oliver has adapted. He’s learned to sleep through it, and keeps right on snoozing even if he has to be fed a tube of yogurt.

The Ellises said they learned from doctors at Doernbecher that it’s best not to let Oliver feel sorry for himself. Instead, they act as though managing diabetes is just one more of life’s daily tasks.

“It’s just the way it is, like brushing your teeth,” Nichole Ellis said.

She said they even hold “di-aversaries” — parties celebrating the anniversary of Oliver’s diagnosis.

Oliver is matter of fact about his ailment, the 10 times a day he pokes his finger, the need to carry around equipment and food wherever he goes.

And if you didn’t see the pod attached to his leg or watch him poke his finger to check his sugar levels, you might not guess that this active boy, who can hardly sit still for a moment and loves to swim and play tag and soccer, has a serious health condition.

Oliver is thrilled to be able to get his insulin from the pod now, and never wants to go back to having the insulin shots he used to have.

Life may have handed Oliver lemons, but he’s learned to make lemonade out of it. The need to regularly count his carbs, to make sure he’s getting what he needs, has made math his favorite school subject.

“Do you know 99 plus 99? I know: 198,” he demonstrated. He went on to correctly add 20 plus 20, 50 plus 50 and a few more sums.

“I’m good at math because of my Type 1 diabetes,” he said.