Health & Fitness

The Overachieving Teenage Pancreas

18-year-old Abby Pepper might be an overachiever, but thanks to Type 1 diabetes, she knows better than most how important it can be to ask for help.

Abigail Pepper, 18, is still working out what she wants to do with her life. But whatever she choses, it’s clear she’ll do a lot. In fact, she already has.

She just started college at Appalachian State University as a junior, having already put two years of community college under her belt. There, she’s pursuing a master’s in political science. “With all of today’s political insanity, I’d like to be able to contribute instead of just saying ‘oh this is terrible!’ For example, there’s a lot of horrible healthcare legislation for people that depend on insulin. I don’t know exactly what I will do, but I think there’s space for me to help there.”

Having Type 1 diabetes herself, having access to insulin is an issue close to Abby’s heart. A volunteer with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund in her hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, Abby helped organize a gala that raised over a million dollars.

But her greatest personal achievement might just be successfully completing Bike Beyond, a 4,200-mile bike ride from New York to San Francisco. She was so proud of the accomplishment, Abby and her mom Cheryl, who homeschooled her while working night shifts as a critical care nurse, got matching tattoos after the ride. It’s a design of a mountain above crossing arrows with stars in the sky that map all of the stops they took along along the way. They were raising money and awareness for Type 1 Diabetes with nineteen teammates, through an organization called Beyond Type 1.

Photo: Whitney Freedman

At 17, when the ride started, Abby was the youngest rider, so her mom accompanied her. A cycling enthusiast herself, Cheryl has been Abby’s companion on her journey with diabetes since the beginning.

It started with the Turkey Trot, a five mile Thanksgiving morning run that Abby’s family participates in every year. When she was 13, quite suddenly, Abby threw up in the middle of the run. She remembers thinking, “Oh my gosh, I’m so cool! I ran so hard I threw up! I’m a real athlete!” But in reality, she was dying; at her blood sugar level, she could have gone into a coma from exercising.

Abby had been displaying symptoms of Type 1 diabetes for years, but as is all too common, doctors kept misdiagnosing it as a flu. After the Turkey Trot incident, Cheryl who had correctly suspected Type 1, refused to leave the doctor’s office until they tested Abby’s blood sugar. When they tested it, “the nurse’s eyes popped out of her head and she went running out the door.”

Abby was rushed to the hospital, but the reality of her diagnosis didn’t hit her immediately. “I just didn’t realize how insane diabetes is at first,” she says. But after six months, the full time job of keeping track of her blood sugar and insulin levels, the permanence of her condition started to sink in: “It was exhausting,” she remembers.  “I was trying to be a pancreas, while I was still learning how to be a human.” She sank into a depression: “My mom says I changed. She says my face stopped lighting up.”

“I was trying to be a pancreas, while I was still learning how to be a human.”

Cheryl finally decided to take Abby to a conference for women with Type 1. “I thought it sounded terrible!” Abby remembers laughing, “A diabetes conference? Who wants to go to that?” But the experience ended up cheering her up substantially. She made friends there who she still sees and talks to regularly. Making friends that knew first-hand what she was going through was “life-changing.”

Photo: Whitney Freedman

But it wasn’t quite enough. Abby still struggled with depression. She took up running which  helped but “there’s no break from diabetes,” she says. “I can go on vacation, but I’m still going to be watching my blood sugars go up and down all the time and trying to keep them at a certain level which is a lot of pressure and can sometimes be impossible.” So competitive that she sweats during board games, Abby didn’t like she couldn’t always win with diabetes.

Last year, unable to beat her depression herself, she finally asked her mom to take her to a therapist. Now, Abby’s an ask-for-help crusader: “I’m so passionate about how OK it is to be sad and have weaknesses and about how important it is to ask for help!”

In other words, acknowledging your human weaknesses makes you stronger than denying them. That’s a message Abby and the 20 other Bike Beyond riders exemplify in the flesh. “Type 1s are pretty strong-willed and self-confident because we always have to advocate for ourselves,” she says. “Type 1s have a don’t-give-up attitude because we already live with something that you can’t give up on.”