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Kamaal Washington was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was nine. He's thirteen now. In those four years, he's become an advocate for diabetes and the author, with his brother Malcolm and help from his parents, of a diabetes educational superhero comic book that's swept the nation beyond their wildest expectations. But it all started when he began to be really, really thirsty.
Kamaal's family, including his six siblings, his mother Dana, and his father Alonzo, had gone to St. Louis for the weekend of activist activities. All the while, Kamaal was downing 42-ounce drinks back to back, but still insisting that his mouth felt full of cotton.
He was also having stomach cramps and a tingling sensation in his hands - he couldn't feel his fingers. So off to the emergency room they went, where his blood sugar was found to be over 700 and he was immediately transferred by ambulance to the children's hospital.
Kamaal: I was really scared at the time, because I didn't know if it was a fatal process. I didn't really see the gist of it as far as what I had to do and what was really going on.
Dana: People who deal with diabetes on a daily basis get so used to throwing out certain terms that they don't really understand their effect on a child. I remember one of the ladies saying, "This'll be something that you'll have for the rest of your life, and you'll never be able to eat any more sugar." I had to pull her aside and say hold it just a second: I want to explain this to him in our own way so that we're not scaring him to absolute death.
Once Kamaal got to the hospital, we entered into a boot camp on diabetes. There's a whole lot of information that you get in only a few days. For people who have never done any type of injection, just the thought of giving your child a shot, the needle pricks every day, and the need to balance the insulin amounts just right - it was very, very frightening, even for me as an adult. But Kamaal handled it very well.
Kamaal: I gave myself a shot in the hospital. They asked me if I could do it, so I overcame my fear of needles and just did it. It was something that I'd have to do for the rest of my life, so I just got used to it.
Dana: In all honesty, as a mother, it took a long time for me to come to terms with the diagnosis. I went through a period of asking why is this happening to my child, and why is this happening to us? Even though they said that it was nothing that I did or didn't do, I felt that I should have noticed it sooner or that maybe I could have done something to prevent it. That guilt just laid there for awhile until I finally accepted that it would have happened regardless.
I put on the brave face for the kids at the hospital, but I remember the night when they were discharging Kamaal and I knew that we were on our own. I just broke down and asked the nurse, how am I going to do this? I don't see how I can do this because it's just too much for him. He's too young for this to be happening to him.
Always, as parents, you make yourself rise to the occasion and do whatever's necessary, so it was a short-lived panic. But I did have that panic period, as I'm sure every mother and father has, because diabetes truly is a bombshell. I think it's very important to be honest and let people know that it's okay to panic, it's okay to be afraid, because those are the steps that you go through in order to overcome.
In helping Kamaal to come to terms with diabetes, Alonzo and I had dual roles. As the mom, I had the softer, more consoling role, and Alonzo was more matter of fact. He let Kamaal know that there are challenges in life, but you do what you have to do. That's where he came up with that slogan, "You are not going to let diabetes overcome you. You are going to overcome diabetes."
We stressed that Kamaal was going to be healthy because we were going to help him learn how to take care of himself and that this was not something to be afraid of. Alonzo took on that portion of it, and I was the person to whom Kamaal could vent on days when he really didn't want to have to deal with it.
He had to be able to get those feelings out. There were a few times, especially in the beginning, where it was really frustrating, but he overcame that, and I think it had a lot to do with the way that Alonzo approached the situation. Our goal was to make Kamaal realize that there is nothing that he cannot do, that his life isn't restricted by diabetes in any way. We've told him about all types of sports figures, professionals, business people, and actors who have had successful careers with diabetes.
Alonzo: That's the message that's promoted in the comic book: There are ways that you can be a hero against diabetes. As an example for Kamaal, I work out every day, and there are certain things I don't eat. And then he strives to do the same things. As the father, I push him to overcome diabetes, to do things, to speak out, and to be unashamed. I told him that we live in Kansas City, not Pity City. I promote what you can do, what you can achieve, and I guess that's where the comic book came along.
Dana: When he was diagnosed, some of our other kids thought that Kamaal had it better, because he had special this, that, and the other thing. Somehow in some of their eyes, because they were younger, they thought diabetes was cool because he was getting special treatment and he got to go to diabetes conventions.
Alonzo: That was what we were trying to do, take a negative situation and make it a positive. That's what the first comic book's all about. What Kamaal received in the hospital was information that was really meant for me and Dana, and it was kind of a negative put-down: oh no, you've got diabetes. What we try to do is say, well, here's an opportunity to overcome this, and you can be a winner - you can win this. That's the message that Kamaal and his brother, Malcolm, are promoting.
Malcolm: When I visited Kamaal at the hospital, he said, "You know what would be a good idea? We could make a comic book to teach kids about the symptoms of diabetes, so they wouldn't have to go through not knowing what the disease is like I did." We went to Dad with our idea, and he said okay.
Kamaal: When my Dad came in, he really lifted up my spirits, and that's what I can always count on my Dad and Mom to do. They always get me doing the right thing. I just felt really encouraged, and that's how I came up with the comic book. If it weren't for my Dad, the comic book wouldn't exist, because he's really the one who inspired me to do it.
Alonzo: When they came to me with the idea, I thought it was going to be a fleeting impulse. The idea was so good that I wanted them to do it, but I said, you guys be prepared if you don't get a lot of attention for it. I didn't realize how serious they were about their advocacy. They wanted to write politicians, and they wanted to go to cities and talk about it. And they began to get a lot of attention after all.
They wanted to show anger in the comic book character of Dr. Diabetes because that was what they hear from a lot of young people when they speak at diabetes camps and conventions. Kids and teens can get burned out. Dr. Diabetes as a character represents a negative mentality and personifies all the wrong ways of handling and managing the illness. You're mad at the world, and you don't want to deal with it, and Dr. Diabetes embodies those feelings. In their third comic book, the boys are going to portray a politician who doesn't want to do any research and so becomes Dr. Diabetes.
Kamaal: Don't let the disease overcome you - overcome the disease. If you don't check your blood sugar one day, get over it. Get out there and do good. When I'm speaking in front of kids, they really listen. They can really communicate with you because they're kids too. They can really feel what you're feeling, and understand exactly what you're talking about.
Dana: And they can vent. You know, sometimes it's easier for kids to vent to their peers. Most adults are so close-fisted and careful about anything personal, especially health issues. People are always amazed at how well the boys openly discuss insecurity or the feelings that we've had as a family, and it has really helped a lot of people.
When Kamaal and Malcolm travel, on almost every occasion, we travel as a whole family. All of us are together, and everyone can see the support that they have. It really sends a positive message to families as a whole about diabetes.
Alonzo: My goal is to see the boys take this mission and make it bigger. Sometimes I look into the future and see Kamaal as a man, meeting with heads of state about diabetes issues. I want him to be a diabetes activist who continues this message and just gets more effective. As an activist, I know that you must find a million different ways to send the same message. And that's what I want them to do when they grow up, to continue what they're doing now, but just do it better.
Kamaal: In the future, we want to do television commercials to tell about diabetes and talk about our comic book, and hopefully, later on, we want to do an animated movie about our comic books. I'd also like to do a commercial about an insulin pump.
Malcolm: We'd like to have a cartoon that would really express the message and tell a good story, one that kids would really watch. And we're trying to raise sponsors for the tour, because the more sponsors we get, the more places we get to go.
Alonzo: Right now the boys are fundraising for the Tour for a Cure and trying to get sponsors for their third comic book. During this Tour for a Cure, we're going to publicize their MySpace page, www.myspace.com\Kamaal_Malcolm, where young diabetics can write to them and send them emails for advice, and where we'll update the tour schedules. We want their MySpace page to be a resource where a whole network of young diabetics can be their friends and talk about real issues.
The more money we raise, the more cities we'll go to and the quicker we'll publish the newest comic book. People who might want to contribute to our efforts can contact us at email@example.com or go to the boy's MySpace page. That's where the community is going to be established. To join the friends list, write to the boys.
If we continue to push for the cure and make it an issue, I think that a cure can be found. If we as advocates, parents, relatives of diabetics, and diabetics themselves force this to become an issue, things will progress. If we don't do that, if diabetes stays in the background with the same old same old and doesn't become a people-generated movement, it'll be slower. It's going to take people like Kamaal and Malcolm, along with other families and other people rising to the occasion. Even celebrities with diabetes don't speak out enough. It's going to take individuals that have enough media savvy and enough people behind them to force the hands of politicians.
Dana: I believe in working with people and politicians, but I also have a strong faith. I put hope, prayer, and action, a three-fold effort, into finding a cure. I hope it will be in Kamaal's lifetime. We in the diabetes community need to support and encourage one another and hang in there for the long haul. No matter what the politicians do, no matter how much of a struggle it is, there's strength in numbers. When the people rise up and make an outcry, the politicians are forced to change, forced to step into action and get going. So even if you're not comfortable talking to a politician, talk about it in your church and school. Find an avenue to get the message out like the boys have.
Kamaal: Be an example. You can do the same things that we're doing. You can be vocal. We're just asking the diabetes community to do the same.
Grade: Middle School
Last A1c: 7.3 percent
Daily Basal Insulin: 17.65 units
Basal Rate: .7 to .75 units
Favorite Exercise: Martial arts
MySpace Page: www.myspace.com\Kamaal_Malcolm
Jun 27, 2007