Dancing with Diabetes

April 19, 2012

Olivia Mendez (By Kyla Heinz)

Olivia Mendez, 15, has a big dream: She wants to become a professional commercial dancer one day. And with her charm, impressive work ethic and passion for dance, she seems well on her way. But there’s more to Olivia than meets the eye: She has type 1 diabetes, which means she constantly has to monitor her blood sugar level to keep herself healthy. How does she manage? Olivia tells
DS what it’s really like for a dancer living with diabetes.

I love dancing more than anything in the world. My mom put me in my first dance class when I was 5, and at 7 I joined In The Spotlight studio in my hometown, Waldwick, NJ. By the time I was 11, I knew I wanted to be a dancer.

The summer before I turned 13, I got to perform at the Tremaine Dance Conventions Nationals in Orlando, FL. Soon after, my health started to deteriorate. At first I thought I was just run-down—I felt weak and faint. Then, even though I was eating, I began losing weight (I dropped to 74 pounds). I felt thirsty all the time, even though I was drinking constantly, and I was too tired to dance, even though I was sleeping all the time. I often felt nauseous and sometimes even vomited. I visited the doctor several times but was never diagnosed with diabetes. My parents and I figured it had to be swine flu because that was all over the media at the time.

One day in early August of 2009, I woke up feeling nauseous and tired, as usual. But I soon became so hot that I walked out to our kitchen and lay down on the tile floor to try to get cool. When my mother found me lying there, she rushed me to the doctor, who sent us straight to the hospital. By the time I arrived, I was too sick and dehydrated to walk. The doctors could barely draw blood to run tests because my veins were collapsing.

I was so out of it that I don’t remember much of what happened next. I know I was in intensive care for four days, where the doctors finally managed to hook me up to an IV to rehydrate me and slowly return my blood sugar  level to normal with a combination of glucose, insulin and fluids. When I woke up, I immediately asked my doctor: “Can I still dance?”

My doctors reassured me that the answer was, yes, I could still dance. But I had type 1 diabetes. Because it had been ignored for so long, I also had diabetic ketoacidosis, which meant my glucose level had become so high I had been close to dying. I was so scared. I kept thinking, “Why is this happening to me?”

Olivia shows off her pump. (By Kyla Heinz)

I spent the next few days in the hospital learning about diabetes and how to deal with it, and meeting my new team of doctors. The disease was overwhelming and scary at first, but now it’s just part of my life.

The toughest change is that now I have to check my blood sugar when I wake up, before I eat or exercise and before bed. I do that by pricking my finger with a needle and pressing my finger to a test strip, which I feed into a meter that tells me my glucose level. I use that information to calculate how much insulin I need, which is put into my body by an insulin pump. There’s a tube inserted into my skin at my hip that allows the insulin to enter my bloodstream. I change the insertion location every two or three days and take it off when I shower or dance. I don’t need to wear it when I’m dancing because exercise helps to balance out glucose levels. If I had insulin constantly going into my body during dance, my blood sugar would drop too low. The pump is also bulky, so it would get in the way.

At first I was worried I would have to eliminate foods from my diet, but it turns out I just have to count how many carbohydrates each food has and then calculate how much insulin I need to keep my blood sugar in check. Eating at restaurants can be tough, because I don’t know the carb count of all of the menu items, and there’s a risk I’ll overestimate or underestimate. Also, I can’t eat lots of junk food without worrying about it like my friends.

If my blood sugar levels get too high, my body could suffer long-term effects like blindness and nerve damage. But I don’t let these things get me down. One thing that keeps me positive is knowing I can have a dance career as long as I take care of myself like I am supposed to.

Olivia taps onstage at  Tremaine Dance Conventions. (Courtesy Tori Duga)

Right now, I’m dancing every day, and I love my crazy schedule! I started high school a year ago at the Morris County School of Technology, where I’m part of the Academy for Visual & Performing Arts. I take classes at Broadway Dance Center in NYC because they have a children and teen program that works well with my school schedule. I’m part of the AIM youth performance company at BDC, and we dance from about 9 am to 9 pm on weekends. I do contemporary, hip hop, ballet, jazz and modern, but hip hop is definitely my favorite.

Dancing for so many hours every day means I have to be extra-careful with my diabetes. If my blood sugar gets too low in class, I won’t be able to focus or see clearly. When that happens, I have to sit out for a few minutes and eat something. Summer intensives can be particularly difficult because there isn’t a lot of time to monitor my blood sugar and I have to be really disciplined. I hate to be “that girl” who sits out, so I’m always careful to make sure teachers and choreographers know about my disease.

I’m only one of two people in my school with diabetes, and I find, in general, that many people don’t know much about type 1 diabetes. My friends tend to worry about me if they see me eating anything with sugar, and will ask, “Are you sure you can eat that?” I find that I need to explain my pump a lot, but that’s OK. It’s important to me to spread awareness about diabetes and to raise money for a cure. I try to participate in walks for diabetes every year, which I love because I get to meet so many other diabetics.

I thought my diagnosis would mean the end of dance for me, but I’m determined not to let it get in my way. I tell myself I’m the one who controls the disease, not the other way around. If all goes well, you’ll see me dancing backup at the Grammys one day!


What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a lifelong disease in which the body either can’t make or process insulin, a hormone that converts sugar into energy. Without insulin, sugar stays in the bloodstream, and the body starts to shut down because it doesn’t have access to the fuel it needs to function.

What’s the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes?
A type 1 diabetic can’t produce insulin, while a type 2 diabetic can usually produce it but can’t use it effectively. Type 1 diabetes is most often diagnosed in children and teens, which is why it was previously called juvenile diabetes.

A diabetic’s toolkit includes test strips, a meter, insulin and juice boxes (for quick carbs). ( (By Kyla Heinz)

What causes type 1 diabetes?
Scientists think it may have to do with both genetics and environmental triggers, but the exact cause is unknown. There is nothing that a type 1 diabetic “did” to cause the disease.

What are the symptoms?
Like Olivia, a type 1 diabetic will feel tired, thirsty and hungry all the time. He or she may lose weight and have to use the bathroom frequently. If diabetes goes untreated too long, diabetic ketoacidosis can result, causing stomachaches and vomiting, or even a diabetic coma or death.

Is there anything diabetics can’t eat or do?
As long as they’re careful, people with diabetes can eat whatever they want (in moderation) and continue to do the same activities as before their diagnosis.

I think I may have diabetes. What should I do?
Go see your doctor! You’ll be given a glucose test to determine whether or not you have diabetes. Check out diabetes.org

for more information.