Young Warriors

Young Warriors

Twins Don’t Let Type 1 Diabetes Stifle Their Dreams

by TIM CRAIG
photos by CELESTE JO WALLS

When 8-year-old Amelia Walls was hospitalized in 2016, Cecilia, her older sister by a whole 10 minutes, was worried. When Cecilia found out that her identical twin sister was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, she went from worried to confused.

“I had no idea what that was,” she recalls. “I didn’t know, and Amelia had to explain it to me.”

After she knew, she became interested. She asked questions about the disease and tried to help, even pricking Amelia’s finger to test blood sugar levels. When Cecilia found out that half of the siblings of people with Type I diabetes also get the disease, she went from interested to serious. She admits she was scared about the prospect of being diagnosed, but seeing her sister successfully manage it helped ease her fear. In November 2018, Cecilia was diagnosed with it.

“After I saw Amelia work with it and manage it, I kind of wanted it, too, to be honest,” Cecilia says. “We barely knew anyone with the disease at the time, and I knew she felt alone at times. When I got it, I felt like, ‘Now she can’t say she’s alone anymore.’ ”

Now 11-year-old sixth-graders, Cecilia and Amelia are two of approximately 1.5 million people in the U.S. who have Type 1 diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control. More than 200,000 of those are under the age of 20, according to JDRF, a foundation that funds Type 1 diabetes research.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that occurs when a person’s pancreas stops producing insulin, the hormone that controls blood-sugar levels. The disease develops when the insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells are mistakenly destroyed by the body’s immune system. The cause of this attack is unknown. The disease is managed by keeping a close watch on the body’s insulin levels through constant monitoring.

After an initial period of manual insulin injections, both Cecilia and Amelia were able to switch to a medical insulin pump called an Omnipod, which delivers insulin continuously. The pair also wear a continuous glucose monitor. They wear these devices 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which made for an over-cautious beginning to middle school.

“I was very paranoid about it at the beginning of the school year,” Cecilia says. “When there are 200 students walking across the hall, I kept thinking someone would bump me and rip it off.”

That paranoia has settled for now, and the girls are settled into a normal routine. At the center of that routine is their mother, Celeste, who seems naturally prepared to help keep things in check for the whole family, which includes three younger siblings and husband Ryan. Celeste, a former employee at Central Florida Media Group and current contributing editor, explains that food has always been something they have been mindful of.

“As a family we’ve always enjoyed cooking and food and we’re very conscientious of making sure the kids ate right. They’ve never been shy at trying new things,” she says. “So when we got the diagnosis, we just become more conscientious of that process in our approach.”

The mantra for the family is to “fight the spike,” which means keeping the body’s blood sugar levels even, not jumping too high or too low. It also means knowing what to do in case that happens. 

One key thing the family did to cope was seek out a community, through online groups or experiences like Camp Boggy Creek, a weeklong camp for families of people with Type 1 diabetes. It was a chance for the girls to connect with people their own age and see teenagers and older people who have the disease and thrive. That week provided a built-in network the family still uses to this day. 

So now that the twins know some of the ins and outs, they know they can dream big for their future. 

Amelia, whose favorite food is sushi, has her sights on becoming a chef. She remembers spending days in the kitchen with her mother and her grandmother. Those times trained her on the ways food interacts with the body and how to eat in order to thrive with the disease. It’s only natural that she would like to share those memories and knowledge.

“I think about those days and it brings back so many great memories,” says Amelia. “My goal is to own a restaurant that specializes in foods designed for people with diabetes,” she says. “My idea with the menu for every meal is to list the correct amount of carbs for each item, which would be more helpful for people with the disease.” 

Cecilia, who prefers a good dark chocolate, wants to become a lawyer. It’s something she already does, she says. 

“When my friends would have an argument, they would come to me and I would help solve the problem between them,” she says. “That’s basically a lawyer’s job: to give justice to those who need it.”

With their future careers set, the pair now work at living with Type 1 diabetes — and educating others. 

“A lot of people think it’s contagious,” says Cecilia, who recalled her friends not interacting as closely with her when they first found out she had the disease. “I asked them why and when I told them I wasn’t contagious, they felt really bad. But now they know.”

That misperception is something they have dealt with more than once. There are times they’ve been made fun of or picked on at school, but each time, together, they have overcome and keep pressing forward.

“What I’d like people to know is that just because you’re going through this tough time, you can still do whatever you want,” says Amelia. “You can be a singer, or on a TV show — it doesn’t matter because of this disease. You can do what you want.”