At the age of 15, Cole Byers has raised more than $130,000 for diabetes research.
Mind you, he did have a head start. He was barely two years old when he began.
Granted, he was too young at the time to understand why his parents were bringing him and his sister in their double stroller on a fundraising walk.
At that time, the spring of 2005, Cole has just been diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, and his parents, Andrew and Marilee, were determined to learn as much as they could about the dis-ease.
“We were living in Whitehorse, Yukon, and because of the small population, we didn’t have the resources you have in a big city,” Marilee recalls from their acreage home near Spruce Grove. “We didn’t know anything about diabetes and we wanted to tap into all the knowledge that other families offered. And the annual fundraising walk was the event that drew everyone to-gether.”
The lack of resources that comes with living in a small centre also meant a lack of awareness among both the public and health-care professionals.
Cole’s parents had taken him to the emergency room several times to find out why he was so sick. But it was not until he went into a diabetic coma that he was diagnosed with Type 1.
“When Cole got sick, the doctors suspected meningitis or pneumonia. But our paediatrician had just returned from working at the Stollery and she recognized the symptoms of diabetes. She saved Cole’s life.”
Cole, only14 months old, was put on a medical emergency flight and flown to Edmonton’s Stol-lery Children’s Hospital. It was the beginning of the family’s learning curve of managing an in-fant’s illness, as well as their advocacy to raise awareness.
Among the family’s volunteer activities was going door-to-door seeking pledges and partici-pants in the fundraising walk.
“For the first couple of years, we would explain that our son had diabetes,” says Andrew.
“By the time Cole was four, he was starting to talk to people about it himself.”
By the time Cole was in kindergarten, he was sharing with his classmates his day-to-day ex-perience living with diabetes. As one of the two youngest patients ever to have received an insulin pump at the Stollery, Cole had a unique story to tell.
Fundraising on the doorstep, he found that people were interested in learning about his chal-lenges and how diabetes affected his life.
“I would tell them I’d have to do a blood sugar test before every meal. And that averages out to 10 blood tests every day. I have to change my insulin pump sites every second day and that I have to take insulin to keep my blood sugars in check so that my sugars don’t go too high or too low.”
He liked doing his bit, both to raise money and to raise awareness.
“I’d say something along the lines of my name is Cole Byers and I’m raising money for diabe-tes. Sometimes, they ask what that is, or sometimes they’d know what that is. I’d give a short explanation, tell them about the walk, ask if they were interested if coming.”
When he was 10, Cole set a fundraising goal for himself: $200,000 by the age of 20. Asked why, his reply is quick and succinct.
“I want to raise money to help find a cure for diabetes for myself and all the other people around the world who are living with the disease.”
To reach his goal, Cole set up a crowd-funding page through Canada Helps.
In November, Cole was recognized with a Youth award on Philanthropy Day for his years of fundraising.
Cole is well on his way to raising the $10,000 this year that he needs to meet his annual goal.
He’s focussing his efforts on DRIFCan to support Dr. James Shapiro’s team because he be-lieves a cure is within sight.
Cole, whose passion is drawing, has expressed his faith in Dr. Shapiro through a piece of art. It shows a man in a white lab coat staring out a window at a cityscape, his back to a trash can overflowing with insulin injection needles.
Dr. Shapiro often uses a slide of Cole’s drawing in his presentations. “This is a picture of me looking out the window when diabetes is cured and now there is no work to do,” he says with a smile. “And I certainly look forward to that day.”
Pat McCormack remembers the exact date he was diagnosed with Type1 diabetes: May 25, 1991.
But an even more vivid memory is the one where he learned the implications of his diagnosis, both on his life and on his career.
At the time, Pat was 27 years old and about to achieve his dream as a dog handler with the Edmonton Police Service.
The moment that the effects of diabetes crystallized for him was dramatic.
“I was on the passenger side of the police car, with my partner driving. We were following a suspicious vehicle and my partner asked me to read the licence plate. I asked him to get a little closer so I could read it.
“He looked at me with an alarmed look on his face. And he said ‘If I get any closer, We will be in front of them. We need to get you to the hospital.’ He was right. I had no idea that my vision was that bad.”
Pat had been diagnosed a few days earlier by a doctor who minimized the seriousness of diabetes and booked him an appointment with the diabetes clinic for three weeks later.
“I knew something was wrong. I’m 6’8” and weighed 250 pounds but I was eating like a horse and drinking an incredible amount of water. And I was always thirsty.”
He found out just how wrong things were when his partner insisted he go to the hospital immediately.
“The doctor looks at me and says ‘You don’t look too good.’ They put me on a gurney and took my gun. They put me on an IV. It took six bags to hydrate me. They told me I wouldn’t have lived till Sunday. When they admitted me to a room on the fifth floor, the doctor told me I was done with police work.”
The idea of working a desk job with EPS was devastating.
“I had a six-month-old puppy at home that I was training for the canine unit. All I ever wanted was to be a policeman. And now all I wanted was to be a dog handler.”
Pat was referred to Dr. Keith Bowering, the endocrinologist who remains his doctor to this very day.
“He told me to prove to him that I could handle diabetes before he’d consider giving me back my gun and a class one licence.”
It was a challenge. As a police officer, Pat worked shifts and long hours that were often unpredictable. It’s a job that is the antithesis of established routines, whereas controlling diabetes is all about keeping routines. Learning how to manage his diabetes meant eating the right food, in the right amount, always on hand, as well as constant monitoring of his blood sugar levels and injecting insulin.
“It was a huge learning curve. They wanted me to learn to eat half a bananna at 6:45 a.m., a half a cup of milk, that’s just not in me to do. But I had to learn to improvise adapt and overcome this. I’d take the same food and the same insulin every day, until I was able to get a handle on things. I never let diabetes control me. I control it.”
With Pat’s determination to become a dog handler, it only took him six months to prove to Bowering that he was ready to “go back to the street.”
He went on to prove that he could handle the rigours and unpredictability of police work: His career with EPS spanned more than 28 years. During that time, he worked as a homicide detective, putting in 18 to 20 hours a day.
“When you’re investigating a homicide, you’re pretty much sleep-deprived for the first four or five days. It’s the kind of thing where you slept in your chair and kept clean underwear in your desk drawer.”
As a police officer who managed his diabetes successfully, Pat was often called on to help other EPS members and families struggling with diabetes. His mentorship to them led him to get involved with other diabetes organizations, eventually leading him to DRIFCan.
He was drawn to the organization because it raises money solely for Dr. James Shapiro’s team.
“DRIFCan doesn’t have high-priced help and administrative costs that eat up the majority of donations. Our money goes directly to Dr. Shapiro. I like supporting research in our own backyard.”
Pat, who has three adult children of his own, now dreams of the day when no young person ever hears the kind of news he received back in 1991.
“I want to do my bit to help find a cure for diabetes so that kids can just be kids.”