Diabetes can’t stop Texas Stars duo

by Stephen Meserve || AHL On The Beat Archive

Last month many sports teams focused on Movember campaigns to raise awareness about men’s health issues. However, the month of November has a very different and extremely personal meaning for two Texas Stars forwards.

November is also National Diabetes Month.

Seasoned vet Toby Petersen and rookie Taylor Vause both suffer from the disease, which destroys the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar.

"A lot of people feel that diabetes will hinder your life, that it will stop you from doing what you want to do. That was my worry," said Vause. "You can go out and have fun with life, play sports, do well in school and live a healthy life with diabetes."

Both Vause and Petersen have to work to continually monitor their blood sugar during the day but also during Stars’ practices and games.

"Every morning when I wake up, it’s the first thing I think of," says Petersen. "Where’s my blood sugar? What food do I need?"

"You’re always trying to keep it in range," said Vause. "I test after the pregame meeting, before warmup, after warmup, between each period and after the game as well."

The main message that both want to impart is that you can live a normal life with diabetes.

Petersen and Vause were diagnosed at completely different stages of their lives, which is actually typical of type 1 diabetes. Currently, adult-onset cases of type 1 are actually two to three times more common than juvenile onset.

For Petersen, it started with a cross-country ski trip at age five.

"I just couldn’t make it out the door. My mom grew up with it because her sister had it. She knew the symptoms."

Vause had similar issues but encountered them far later in life. In his first year with the Swift Current Broncos, nothing seemed to be going his way.

"I was really tired all the time. We attributed it to the new league at first. New league, new home, and dealing with a lot."

But it wasn’t the new home. Taylor returned after Christmas and experienced a new symptom that made him visit the doctor: dry mouth.

"I went to the doctor because my mouth was so dry. It was incomprehensible how much I was drinking. I told my trainer that something was up. I lost ten pounds as well."

Taylor’s symptoms, weight loss, fatigue and dry mouth, are all classic sign of diabetes, along with frequent urination and increased hunger. Risk of developing diabetes increases when there is a family member who also has the disease. Studies also suggest that the onset of type 1 diabetes could be affected by environmental factors, including the presence of some viruses.

The young Petersen was already skating at five and wanted to get back on the ice with his mite teammates.

"I remember the nurses joking with me about being the big hockey player. The doctors were stressing that we’ll get this under control and back on the ice with your mite buddies."

Vause received a few calls after his diagnosis, most notably from diabetic NHLers Bobby Clarke and Nick Boynton, who encouraged him that he could live a normal live and play hockey with the disease. Clarke, a Hockey Hall of Famer as a player, former GM of the Philadelphia Flyers, and most recently the Flyers Senior Vice President, wrote about his disease in the March 1983 edition of People magazine:

“People think I have some secret that allows me to have diabetes and play hockey—that I must be doing something nobody else is doing. But my diabetes is the same as any juvenile diabetic’s. I have to take insulin; I have to exercise and watch what I eat. I’m asked a lot to advise young people who get it. I think they have to take care of it themselves. Doctors can advise them, and parents can advise them, but it’s their body. There are things they’re going to want to do in life, so they have to know how to handle it. I just tell them, ‘You can do it if you want to. Don’t use it as a crutch.’”

Texas Stars athletic trainer, D.J. Amadio, has worked with several players over his 11 years in professional hockey that were affected by the disease. He agrees with Clarke’s assessment; to him, it’s all about the player being vigilant and managing the disease.

“It’s up to the individual player how the disease affects them. It doesn’t really affect performance; it only affects them when they’re not keeping track of what they need to do and how much insulin to get and when.“

As a certified athletic trainer, Amadio is able to start to see when one of the two Stars forwards is getting low on sugars in the game. Each one likes a slightly different sugar pick-me-up, and it’s Amadio’s job to make sure they are available on the bench, whether home or away.

“It’s important that I have those things on hand, whether it’s a Coke, an easy fix, or someone else needs fruit juices. We have to have those in our kits all the time. If someone wants a juice box, we can’t just go to the vending machine to get that."

Additionally, Amadio makes sure to keep testing equipment on the bench during games and practice, as both players sometimes check their sugars mid-period, especially when they’ve just taken some insulin. Usually the testing can be done in under a minute and either forward will be ready for their next shift without any delay.

Despite the playing experience differential between the two players, they trade tricks and tips for managing their blood sugar, sometimes finding new methods and other times not.

"We’ve been sharing ideas," said Petersen. "Everyone’s different. Taylor wears his insulin pump in practice; I wear it in games, too. It’s great to have him on the team. It’s so rare to have one person on the team who is diabetic, so having two is a nice treat."

"To have Toby as a mentor, it’s been great moving up to pro," added Vause. "We feed off each other where we’ve got tricks that work for us and see if they work for the other person."

The two recently headed out to Reagan Elementary in nearby Leander, Texas, to spread awareness of the disease. Third, fourth and fifth graders were on hand to listen to Toby and Taylor share their stories and talk about how diabetes has affected their lives.

“No matter what you always get a question about fighting,” joked Kristen Campomizzi, Director of the Texas Stars Foundation, the charitable arm of the team. “But the kids were really good and well-behaved. They had great questions about the differences between Type 1 and Type 2 and asked if testing hurt.”

Vause brought along his testing kit to show the students how it worked. The players took pictures with and signed autographs for the four students at the school who were affected by Type 1 diabetes.

Neither player is a newcomer to the task of raising awareness for diabetes. The rookie Vause won the WHL Humanitarian of the Year Award for his work with diabetes awareness campaigns during his major junior career. Petersen has been an active participant in fundraising and awareness campaigns for JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) since 1999 when he was at Colorado College.

According to its website, JDRF is the leading global organization focused on type 1 diabetes research. Since its founding in 1970, JDRF has awarded more than $1.6 billion to diabetes research.

The JDRF recognized Petersen as a Celebrity Ambassador Spokesperson for the Dallas area during his time as a Dallas Star. During his last stint in the AHL, Petersen was the Iowa Stars’ Humanitarian Award winner. He and his wife, Alexa, are now the player representatives to the Texas Stars Foundation.

“We knew that Toby and Alexa had done a lot with the Dallas Stars Foundation,” said Campomizzi. “We always have a player and his wife on the Foundation board. Our president asked them to join the Foundation Board, and they were very excited to get involved.”

The Stars are working to coordinate with JDRF Austin to setup a diabetes awareness night at a Texas Stars game. The scheduling hasn’t come together yet, but the team is thrilled about the possibility of working with the JDRF in the coming year.

"I’m very excited about raising awareness for diabetes," said Petersen. "People have it under control better than 40 years ago, but it still has dire consequences. Times have changed and things have improved but research is still needed."

The JDRF national website can be found at jdrf.org.