Father’s Day is one day in June dedicated to honoring those great dads in our lives, but when the sun sets that night, the real work of being a dad continues for the next 364 days of the year. This might be especially true for dads who have diabetes adding another dimension to their family life. Tim Ryan, husband, dad, and Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) advocate, is one guy who understands the joys – and responsibilities – of being a diabetes dad (D-Dad).
Tim will never forget the day his wife Michelle called him at work to tell him their young son was sick. It wasn’t an ordinary cold or virus. Duncan had been complaining of thirst, and even though their pediatrician said he seemed fine, Michelle knew something was wrong. “I think he’s sick… like you,” she said through tears. “I’m reliving the emotions of that day even now,” Tim recalls, describing the feelings of sadness and guilt as he realized the challenges his son would face.
Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1998 at thirty-two years old, Tim had hoped those words “sick like you” were something he would never hear. After their son’s type 1 diagnosis, the family pulled together and reached out to JDRF, designing a clever dinosaur t-shirt for their first JDRF Walk to Cure. It read, “Walking with Duncan” and reflected their desire to ‘make diabetes extinct.’ “That was the only year we made a shirt for only one child,” Tim says now. Ten months later, their older child Caitlin was also diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Now motivated to help both of his children, Tim called JDRF and said, “Put me to work.”
“JDRF has been a great outlet for the all-too-common frustrations of parenting a child with diabetes. It’s been a place where I can turn something negative into something positive,” Tim says, “Sure I want to find a cure for my kids, but we’re funding important prevention research, too. The idea that no dad would have to go through what I’ve gone through in the last thirteen years and what my kids have gone through in the last five years is incredibly powerful.”
The Ryans participate in the Walk to Cure every year, as well as in the JDRF Ride to Cure Diabetes. In 2009, Tim’s competitive nature helped earn him recognition as the top fundraiser at the Tucson Ride. Energized by the experience, he recruited family and friends to ride along with him. This year, his seventy-two-year-old mother will be joining Tim, his brother, and father on the ride in Burlington, Vermont. “The good part about living with diabetes is that it has given me empathy that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Staying active is a great way Tim and Michelle model healthy living for their family. A cyclist and soccer player prior to his diagnosis, Tim has continued to stay active, and says exercise is an important factor in his blood sugar management. “After we had kids, I had to figure out how to build exercise into my life as a dad and husband, so I sold my car and started riding my bike to work every day. It’s a great stress release,” he adds, “It’s ironic, but in some ways, I’m a healthier person because I have type 1 diabetes.” Caitlin and Duncan are active kids, both involved in sports. Caitlin has been dancing since she was three years old, and Tim says he’s happy she’s found something she loves. Tim also coaches Duncan’s soccer team.
The Ryans try to make their children’s lives as normal as possible. “We are fair and equitable with them. If one of us has a high blood sugar reading, then we all skip dessert as a family.” Having two kids with diabetes is a full-time job for his wife, who goes to their school every day at noon to test Duncan and Caitlin’s blood sugars and help with insulin dosing for lunch. “Managing blood sugars isn’t just a couple of hours each day, it’s a twenty-four-hour-a-day job.” Just like being a dad.
This hard, but rewarding, work continues to motivate father and now daughter in their advocacy efforts. Recently, Caitlin was featured in Roll Call, the Congressional newspaper, for her lobbying efforts on behalf of more funding for type 1 diabetes, which has made her dad very proud, every day and all year long.
Tim Ryan doesn’t think of himself as the perfect dad, by any means, but he does have some tips he’s learned in his years as a D-Dad:
- Set an example and be a coach to your kids.
- Model a healthy lifestyle and talk about making good choices.
- Help kids find activities they love.
- Focus on the positive.
- Don’t get hung up on the daily numbers.
“Diabetes is like golf – some days you’re going to hit it into the woods, and other days you’re going to get close to the pin. You can do everything right and still get a bad shot in golf, or a bad number on your meter. In our family, we don’t let the numbers drive our lives.”
Amy Stockwell Mercer is a freelance writer with type 1 diabetes living in Charleston, SC. She blogs at re-Defining Diabetes and her work can be found in a variety of publications, including Charleston Magazine, The City Paper, Diabetes Health, and Literary Mama. Mercer is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and interviewees, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.
© 2012 The DX: The Diabetes Experience