Chris Eck knows well how to faceoff with a short stick on the lacrosse field. Now, he’s learning how to do it off the field, in the game called living with diabetes.
The 26-year-old Eck is a midfielder and faceoff specialist for the Boston Cannons of Major League Lacrosse. At six feet and 205 pounds, he is an imposing figure during a game. As someone living with type-1 diabetes, the Cleveland, Ohio native is also an inspiration to young people and their families at public appearances on behalf of the Juvenile Diabates Research Foundation chapter in Fairfield County, Connecticut, where he grew up.
Eck was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes in the fall of 2004 at Joslin Diabetes Center in Syracuse, while a freshman at nearby Colgate University. He learned of his condition after wondering why he was drinking 32 ounces of water every 15 minutes and had lost 20 pounds in two weeks.
The diagnosis did not kill Eck’s dream of becoming a professional lacrosse player. After graduating from Colgate, he was the Cannon’ fourth-round selection (38th overall) in the 2008 MLL Collegiate Draft. During the Cannons’ 2011 season, Eck won 156 of 262 faceoffs (placing him first in the league) and had 51 ground balls (tying him with teammate Matthew Smalley for fifth place in the league) and three assists.
Instead, learning he had type-1 diabetes marked the beginning of Eck’s journey to manage and cope with the chronic condition for the rest of his life.
Here’s our interview with Chris Eck.
Did you know what diabetes is, before you were diagnosed with it?
I had a general idea, but I didn’t really know the extent of what it meant to have type-1 diabetes.
What was your reaction when you were diagnosed with diabetes?
It’s not something I wanted to hear. I went down to Colgate’s health facilities a couple of times. After a few tests and after going there for a couple weeks in a row, they thought that I had the flu and eventually they decided to do a blood test, which showed that I had type-1 diabetes. I said to myself, “Oh, no! What am I going to do? Am I going to be able to keep playing lacrosse? How am I going to do this? What does this really mean?”
The thought running through your mind was, “Is this going to end my lacrosse career?” What did the medical people tell you?
That was my immediate thought, but I quickly turned to, “How am I going to make this happen? How am I going to do this?” I was very quickly rushed to Joslin’s research center in Syracuse because Colgate’s not very far from there. I needed to get there and make sure the people in the car knew I hadn’t passed out. So I was singing “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer On the Wall” in the back of the car so everyone knew I was alive.
Later on, did anyone have the conversation with you about what this meant for your ability to play professional lacrosse?
I was still in college at the time. While I was in college, Major League Lacrosse was something that I wanted to do, but it wasn’t something readily on my mind. It was more, “How am I going to play in college?” I had conversations with the doctors about college lacrosse and a lot of it came down to, “You just need to manage your diabetes. You need to prick your finger for blood samples. You need to give yourself insulin. You need to eat the right food.” They said that, and it sounded simple. I was lucky enough to have three really close friends from home. Well, sort of lucky enough—I feel bad that they have diabetes, too. But I was lucky enough to reach out to them and they were able to help me because they all played sports while growing up. So I was lucky to have a pretty good group of people who could help me to adjust immediately, and I’ve made adjustments on my own since then.
So they made it clear to you that you need to control the diabetes, but you could live an otherwise normal life.
Yes! I say basically, “My pancreas is in my brain and not somewhere in my rib cage. My pancreas doesn’t work, so I’ve got to manually figure out what’s going on and how to make everything work.”
How do you manage your blood glucose when you’re playing?
Essentially, I check my blood sugar a lot before I play or work out. Before games, it’s a little different just because I have to take in the fact of whether it’s hot outside or whether I’m playing at a high altitude or at sea level. I also have to take into account the meals that I’ve eaten. Usually, I’m checking my blood sugar on the day of a game every hour or half hour. As the game gets closer—an hour out—I’m checking it every 10 to 15 minutes. And then a half-hour out, I’m checking it every five minutes, making sure that it’s at the right level and knowing that my adrenalin is going to kick in and tweak things. Usually, I have a little bit of a shake, to get my blood sugar up and then it’s kind of go-from-there.
Once you’re out on the playing field, is there anything that you either cannot do at all or need to do less of because you live with diabetes?
Not necessarily. I play a pretty normal game, like everyone else on my team. In every quarter, my trainer gives me my blood-sugar tester and I test it. When I need to bring my blood sugar up, I drink some Powerade. When I need some insulin, I administer that. Typically, I don’t need insulin very often even though my blood sugar gets pretty high. But a lot of the times, it’s an artificial high just because of the elevated amount of adrenalin that’s flying through my body. When your body has elevated amounts of adrenalin running through it, you become more resistant to insulin. So you actually don’t process the sugar because your body needs that extra energy.
What are you and your family doing to inform and educate people about diabetes?
I do a ton of work with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. In 2010, I was the speaker and my family was honored at JDRF’s Connecticut Gala in Fairfield County. That year, we raised the more money than any other chapter in the country. I also do clinics with young kids, playing lacrosse and other sports with them—anything I can really do, to show them that you can keep doing what you want to do, when you have diabetes. I tell them, “It might be a little scary and you might have a tougher time than most other kids, but you can do anything that anyone else can do.”
What’s the biggest piece of advice that you give to other people living with diabetes— especially those people who are athletically active?
I give this advice to a lot of people, with or without diabetes, but it’s especially for kids with diabetes: If you want to be successful at something, you need to put in a ton of time and work into it. Things don’t just come easily. Realize that you’re different and be okay with that. Be ready to work harder than anyone else on your team. Be ready to eat better than anyone else. Be ready to focus more on what you want do—let’s say it’s a sport. More than just the hour or two at practice, it’s about putting in all that extra time and effort, to get where you want to get.
Do you have any tips specifically for people who play sports with type-1 diabetes?
Make sure you keep track of your blood sugar. You don’t want your blood sugar to get too out of control. Test yourself often.
It really comes down to, whether you’re a diabetic or not, putting in more time and effort than anyone else out there. If you have type-1 diabetes, that’s a little something extra that might be hard for you to deal with. But I like to believe that I wouldn’t be where I am without being a type-1 diabetic. I would never wish it on anyone in the world—I would never wish it on my worst enemy—because it’s no fun to have. But without having been diagnosed, I don’t think I would have taken care of my body and be focused on how I eat and how I do my workouts as much as I do today.