When Rachel Reuman was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2011, she was overwhelmed and terrified. Rachel had always been active and became concerned that diabetes would prevent her from doing what she wanted to do. Now four years later, Rachel has completed a five month, 600-mile circumnavigation of snowy Vermont, and knows her diabetes can’t stop her.
Prior to her diagnosis Rachel had signed up for a two week camping trip and struggled with deciding if she should attend. Between her desire to be active and her fear of needles, she had a lot to overcome before the trip. “You can’t let diabetes rule your life,” said the doctors Rachel met with for diabetes advice. “That helped, but it was still a rough transition,” Rachel said. She took the doctor’s advice to heart and went on the camping trip, but never imagined she would be doing a semester long program in the wilderness.
That all changed in January when Rachel embarked on a semester long trip through Vermont with Kroka Expeditions. Beginning in New Hampshire, Rachel and twelve other campers skied, whitewater canoed, rowed, and biked through Vermont into Quebec and back to New Hampshire. “It was absolutely incredible,” said Rachel. Rachel lived off the land, learning wilderness living skills, the history of the land she was traveling, even how to ski. “I was ‘Most likely to snow plow uphill’,” she said.
During the five months on trail Rachel had to manage her diabetes care on her own for longer than she’d ever had to before, relying on an insulin pump to help with her diabetes management while she was on the go. When the trip began, Rachel ran into trouble when her pump began failing every 24 hours. With her pump dead and camp for the night not yet set up, Rachel sometimes had to go without insulin for five hours. “It was just the cold,” she said. “The pods don’t like being outside in negative 20 degree temperatures any more than I do!” To combat the problem, Rachel sewed small pouches that she wore against her skin keep the pods from freezing.
Although Rachel had her insulin pump under control, the conditions of her journey made it difficult for her to bring along typical snacks for low blood glucose. Any juice she brought would freeze, and because she was dehydrated, sugar tablets were not an option. How did Rachel combat hypoglycemia? “When in Vermont,” Rachel said, “Maple syrup!” At times when her group was stationary, Rachel was even able to tap maple syrup straight from the tree. “It was the most beautiful thing,” she said.
Managing high blood glucose was challenging for Rachel on her journey. Before her trip she had great diabetes control, but on the second part of her trip she realized her blood sugar hadn’t been below 200 for a month. Being preoccupied with her insulin pump, she wasn’t able to get her blood glucose to go down.
“I didn’t know how to handle it,” she admitted. “I had to leave the trail for ten days.” Rachel met with an endocrinologist in Boston who helped her get back on track, and went back to the trail with no further problems. “I had to acknowledge that diabetes was a problem when I’ve gone my whole life thinking ‘It’s fine, I can do anything,’” Rachel said. “I do have to respect my own illness; I have to see that it exists.”
The five months on trail gave Rachel an incredible learning opportunity. “I learned a different way of seeing myself,” she said. On Rachel’s trip, her insulin pump was the most sophisticated technology her group had- there were no other electronics. “It makes you see yourself very truthfully, which can be painful because there is nothing to hide behind.”
The journey also gave Rachel an extreme amount of willpower. Her group often traveled twelve miles a day, then, exhausted, spent hours setting up camp in the dark. Quitting wasn’t an option. “If there’s a mountain, you have to go up it,” she said. “That applies to diabetes as well. If something is wrong, I can’t ignore it, I have to deal with it.”
So what’s next for Rachel? She’s going back to the trail, of course. Rachel has seen many people turn down wilderness expeditions because they felt like they weren’t possible with diabetes. “People are scared to take the first step,” she said. “They really rely on that hotline to the hospital.” She wants teenagers with diabetes to have the same sense of willpower and independence that she got on her journey.
Over February vacation Rachel will be leading a Kroka Expeditions five day snowshoe voyage for thirteen to eighteen year olds with type one diabetes, along with a doctor for medical support. “I hope it will give people that same perspective,” she said, “I can do anything I want to do and also have diabetes.”
Rachel’s five months of living off the land has allowed her to see herself in a different light. Her life is as active as ever, and she’s helping others have the freedom in their diabetes care that she has. “Diabetes doesn’t have to stop you,” she said. In her life and in her diabetes management, she has learned to face whatever is in front of her head on.