Pixar Exec Discovers Diabetes Is Not Child’s Play

| Aug 1, 2003

John Lasseter has manufactured entire worlds out of thin air.

The co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, California, and one of the masterminds behind the movie hits “Toy Story,” “Toy Story 2,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo” has made stained-glass windows walk, brought toys to life and taught bugs to speak.

In other words, with more than his share of technological and cinematic miracles, there seems to be nothing that Lasseter can’t do.

But when his son Sam was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes shortly after turning 9, Lasseter admits that he was knocked for a loop, suddenly left feeling uncharacteristically uncertain and powerless.

‘Something That No Parent Ever Wants to Hear’

“It’s something that no parent ever wants to hear,” says Lasseter, who is the father of five boys. “To hear that your son or daughter has a life-threatening, lifelong disease—news like that just shakes your world.”

Speaking from his home in Sonoma, Lasseter describes the moment almost two years ago when he first realized that something was wrong with Sam.

“Sam is really an amazing soccer player,” he says, “and I always love watching him play on his youth soccer team. . . . One day, we were at this one game, and every time he made a run at the ball, afterward he’d have to stop and lean over—completely out of breath. I was thinking, ‘Okay. Something’s wrong. That’s not Sam.’”

The young boy, it turns out, had also been experiencing the classic symptoms of excessive thirst and urination. When a family friend who is a doctor suggested that his condition might be diabetes, Sam was admitted to the University of California, San Francisco, medical center. It was there that the diabetes diagnosis was confirmed.

“Boom. That was it,” remembers Lasseter. “Sam’s whole life changed. Our whole life changed.”

For the next several weeks, the Lasseters devoted themselves to learning about diabetes.

“I wanted to know the whole history of diabetes,” Lasseter says. “I wanted some perspective on how far we have to go to find a cure. Looking at Sam, who was so scared—as a parent, it just rips your heart out. That feeling, that moment, I still haven’t been able to shake it. One of the things you go through is to think, ‘Man! If there’s a way I can do anything so this doesn’t happen to other families in the future, then I’m there! Just show me what I can do!’”

Support From Pixar Colleagues

Over the next days and weeks, Lasseter learned that many of his Pixar colleagues had diabetes, as they began dropping by his office to share their experience and support.

One important ally was actor John Ratzenberger, best known as Cliff from the television show “Cheers.” Ratzenberger is the only performer to have supplied a character’s voice in every Pixar film (he’s Hamm the piggy bank in both “Toy Story” movies, P.T. Flea in “A Bug’s Life,” the Yeti in “Monsters, Inc.” and a school of moonfish in “Finding Nemo”). Ratzenberger’s son, now a teenager, has had type 1 since he was in elementary school.

“When you’re a parent whose child is diagnosed with diabetes,” says Ratzenberger, who for years has worked to raise money for diabetes research, “the first thing that happens is that the earth swallows you whole. That’s exactly what happens. All of a sudden, your perfect kid is hit with this life-and-death battle, and, as a parent, it’s the end of the world for you. But your job as a parent is to scale back up out of that hole and learn to take care of your child.”

Ratzenberger is a major financial supporter of childrenwithdiabetes.com, an online service created to support children and families living with diabetes. Ratzenberger “helped out a lot with emotional support,” according to Lasseter. “We talked a lot, and he started introducing us to a lot of great people. It’s a wonderful community, the people who are working for a cure for diabetes.”

‘Finding Nemo’ Screening Benefits Diabetes Research

For several years, with Lasseter’s support, Ratzenberger has hosted advance screenings of Pixar films in Los Angeles as fundraisers for diabetes-related organizations.

After Sam was diagnosed, John and Nancy Lasseter quickly decided to put future films to use raising money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF). In early May 2003, a $500-a-seat dinner and auction at Pixar Studios—highlighted by an early sneak peek at “Finding Nemo”—raised nearly half a million dollars. This was added to the $140,000 collected earlier at a similar event held before the English-language release of the Oscar-winning “Spirited Away,” a project for which Lasseter was executive producer, with Ratzenberger contributing the voice of an irritable frog.

“We’re very fortunate,” Lasseter acknowledges. “We’ve worked hard for it, but with these movies, we’ve been given a wonderful opportunity to help out where it counts.”

Back to Soccer and Diving

Asked whether Sam has returned to playing sports, Lasseter shouts, “Heck, yeah! And that’s not all. The thing I’m proudest of is that Sam—who’s ten years old now—was certified last Thanksgiving as a scuba diver.”

Both Lasseter and his wife have been divers for decades, and now the whole family is certified. To make sure that Sam stays safe, father and son have developed a series of hand signals to communicate about blood-glucose levels and the like, even dozens of feet underwater.

“If I want to ask, ‘How are you feeling? How’s your blood [glucose]?’ I point to his finger, as in pricking a finger to check your blood,” Lasseter explains. “And he’ll give me an okay sign or a thumbs-down sign to say he’s feeling low.”

Lasseter keeps a tube of glucose gel handy while diving.

“We call it cake frosting,” he says. He’s always prepared to give Sam an underwater glucose squirt if the boy starts to feel dangerously low.

“The thing is, he’s a certified scuba diver!” Lasseter laughs. “At ten years old . . . he’s scuba diving! I’m so incredibly proud of him. He wouldn’t let the disease get in his way. . . . And now, he’s just an amazing little scuba diver.”

“Of course,” the proud father grins, “he’s always been a pretty amazing kid.”

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Aug 1, 2003

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