TAMPA — Emma Donahue, a swimmer at Plant, has an interest in chemistry.
And she’s the experiment.
Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 9, Donahue can’t produce insulin and therefore can’t regulate the amount of sugar in her blood. So, she must do it manually. A shot of Lantus, long-acting insulin, once every 24 hours. A shot in her thigh of Novolog, short-acting insulin, after breakfast, lunch, dinner and any snack. Finger pricks to check blood sugar levels before she eats, at least two hours after, and any time she doesn’t feel her best — so about 10 times a day.
And during meets, she checks every 15 minutes and must time her shot wisely, because she can take insulin only once every three hours.
If her levels are too high, she cramps up. Too low, and she doesn’t have any energy. And the adrenaline boosts athletes normally get during competitions only add a layer of complexity; they can cause faulty measurements.
“It’s really tricky,” said Donahue, now 16. “If you make one minor change, it could mess up the whole thing and throw me completely out of whack.”
According to the National Institute of Health, only 0.26 percent of people younger than 20 in the United States have Type 1 or 2 diabetes. Donahue, though, hasn’t let her condition hold her back. She has qualified for the 100 breaststroke race at the Class 3A state swim meet for the third year in a row and is already ahead of the pace that earned her 11th place last year.
And she achieved this, along with a 16th-place finish at the state meet her freshman year, when she admittedly didn’t have her diabetes under control. After her insulin pump failed to deliver the correct amount of the hormone last spring, she was rushed to the hospital with dangerously high blood sugar levels that resulted in diabetic ketoacidosis. After four hours of intravenous insulin, during which time she couldn’t eat or drink anything — even water, in fear of upsetting her internal chemistry — her blood sugar dropped to below life-threatening levels.
“I was just throwing up every 30 minutes,” said Donahue. “I went to the hospital and they put me on an insulin drip for such a long time, until my blood sugar went down to the 200s (normal is 60-180 milligrams per deciliter). They said if I took too much insulin it would cause my brain to swell, so they had to take precautions and give it to me slowly.
“It was just horrible; they gave me little sheets of cotton to suck water on. I was beyond uncomfortable.”
Donahue says that was a turning point, the moment she realized she had to get her diabetes under control. She switched to her current shot regimen, attempted to curb her sweet tooth with a renewed vigor, and eventually was able to shift her focus more toward becoming a better racer in the pool. Swimming with shoes on during her Greater Tampa Swimming club team practices, for instance, has improved her kick and paid off this season.
“It’s so tough,” Donahue said of the drill. “You barely move. It’s inch by inch. It’s definitely helped, though.”
Both Donahue’s kick and her diabetes management are works in progress. At last week’s Class 3A, Region 2 region meet, she drank Capri Sun to “chase sugars” in between her 100 breast and 400 free relay swims — and ended up getting sick during the freestyle. But she has her father, who swam at Princeton, and mother, who swam at Brown and in the 1988 Summer Olympics, to lean on.
And she has younger sister Alexandria, a freshman, to watch out for her and push her to kick harder. The younger Donahue finished third in the 100 breast with a time of 1:07.34, and teammate Emily Clifford was right behind her with a 1:07.39. Emma came in eighth in 1:08.95, just .84 of a second behind her time at the state meet last year.
“It’s a healthy competition,” said Plant coach Gil Gonzalez. “It pushes all three of them.”
While competitive, the elder Donahue said she can be happy for her sister when she wins, and Alexandria feels the same.
“They fight like cats and dogs sometimes,” Brian Donahue said of his daughters, “but you’ll never see someone as defensive of Emma as Ali. Not just with other people, but making sure she’s on top of things. She notices when things are awry with Emma.”
And Emma is trying to help other diabetics. In addition to raising money annually ($2,550 last year with her club swimming team) for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Walk to Cure Diabetes, she also belongs to Students with Diabetes, run through the University of South Florida, and plans to start a support group at Plant.
“It’s so hard,” Donahue said of her life’s chemistry experiment. “It takes a lot to be perfect.”
State swimming and diving finals
Class 3A: Thursday
Class A: Friday
Class 2A: Saturday
Where: Central Florida YMCA Aquatic Center, 8422 International Dr., Orlando
Admission: $9 per session (plus $5 parking)