Father’s Day Special: One on 1 with a T1D Dad and his Three T1D Kids

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T1D in the Gaffney family: Tommy, Sarah, Bill and Kaitlyn

Welcome to JDRF NorCal’s blog, One on 1, a series of interviews with people who live with type 1 diabetes (T1D). Members of the community talk about how T1D affects them, how they manage it, and how they thrive. With Father’s Day right around the corner, we connected with T1D Dad, Bill Gaffney, and his three adult T1D kids to hear about growing up with this disease together as a family. Bill, a retired middle school science and P.E. teacher, called in from Thousand Oaks in SoCal, while Sarah, a director of marketing & communications, called in from Oakland, Kaitlyn, a pre-k teacher, joined in from Danville, and Tommy, a sales representative, connected from San Francisco.

Bill, let’s start with you. When were you diagnosed with T1D and what was it like for you at the time?

Bill: I was about 40 years old, so at first I thought I had type 2 diabetes. I had a twin brother, Jimmy, who was diagnosed with type 1 at five years old, so I knew what it was, but because of my age, I assumed I had type 2. I tried to treat it with pills and diet. That didn’t work and I finally found another doctor who tested my blood and we determined it was type 1.

Later on, Sarah was diagnosed at age seven, Kaitlyn at age six, and Tommy at age nine. Those were very sad and disappointing moments for me.

How did your own experience with T1D help you support your children when they were diagnosed?

Bill: Since I grew up with a diabetic twin, I knew it wasn’t life ending. I knew what was going on with them, and I was prepared. We got the kids set up in a support group early on. The doctor who ran it was a great guy and he made a comment I really liked. He said, “You are not a diabetic. You are a person with diabetes.” And that really struck me, both for my kids and for myself.

Kids, what was it like for you to be diagnosed with the same disease you watched your father deal with, and then each other?

Sarah: I feel like our dad didn’t make it too over-the-top that he had diabetes. Which was nice, so that when we were each diagnosed it was just something you did. At dinner time you checked your blood sugar and took your insulin. We all tried to eat low carb. Those routine habits that he consistently showed us helped us feel really prepared. But my parents were very understanding and knew that we also needed to be kids. We needed to be kids and also be diabetic, and we didn’t have to choose to be one or the other. That was a healthy perspective growing up.

Kaitlyn: I don’t remember feeling scared at all, probably because my dad and Sarah were already diagnosed. I only remember being upset because I didn’t get to spend the night in the hospital like Sarah did. Her bed moved up and down and she had a TV in her hospital room. I had just recently broken my leg and my mom was nine months pregnant when I was diagnosed. I remember my dad having to carry me to the bathroom.

All of this was happening at once?

Kaitlyn: All in the same week! I had broken my leg, I was diagnosed with diabetes, and Tommy was born. But I don’t remember ever feeling scared and I think that says a lot about my parents.

Kids, what do you admire most about your dad in handling T1D?

Tommy: I admire that he would always eat and be healthy. He set us all up for success because he shared habits that helped us manage our own diabetes, while also showing us that living a full life and having diabetes could go hand in hand.

Kaitlyn: As we’ve gotten older, it’s become very obvious that our parents always valued health over a lot of things.  My dad always set a really good example about what he was eating and what choices he was making. Our parents exercised a lot. Watching them only helped us and I think that’s very admirable.

Sarah: Even now – I haven’t lived at home for over fifteen years – but I feel like I’m still making healthy decisions because of the habits and mindsets that were instilled in us at a super young age. As someone with T1D who also had kids with T1D, my dad always knew when we needed a break or needed his help, and he knew how to strike a balance.

How do you all support each other living with T1D?

Sarah: I wish none of us had it, but I feel really lucky that we were all able to be together in this and it just felt like a normal part of our daily lives. Growing up, it was so helpful to have my dad there who knew what highs and lows felt like, because that’s hard to describe.

Kaitlyn: We really benefit from having each other in our family to lean on. Sarah and I follow each other on our Dexcoms and we can check in any time.

Sarah: We ask each other questions like “My blood sugars have been high all week. Has that ever happened to you?”  Or, “I’ve been really insulin sensitive this week. What do you think it could be?” And now that we’re all on various devices, we have more tips to share with each other.

Tommy: I feel like everyone supports me! As the youngest, I am often the one being supported by my dad and sisters. That is the cool thing about having a family full of diabetics – there is always insulin around and there are always people near who can help me out.

Bill, what do you admire most about your kids and their handling T1D?

Bill: They were all on top of things even as little kids. They were all smart kids and they did what they knew they needed to do. There was no hesitation. I was very proud of them.

What would a cure mean to each of you?

Tommy: A cure would mean…relief. A weight lifted off my shoulders, and an extended lifespan.

Kaitlyn: Yes, a relief.

Sarah: A better, easier life.

Bill: A miracle.

Kids, what is your Father’s Day message to your dad?

Kaitlyn: We love you, Dad. Happy Father’s Day! I’d also like to say Happy Father’s Day to my Father-in-Law who also has T1D!

Tommy: Happy Father’s Day, Dad! Hopefully I’ll be able to be a father as great as you one day.

Sarah: We’re super grateful and lucky to have grown up in a way that made us feel supported and normal, special and unique. And that was a really powerful thing.