By Mary Shedden
Photographs by Jim Reed
The Tampa Tribune
May 26, 2012
The first red flag came from a school guidance counselor. John Paul wasn’t the student he used to be. The seventh-grader at Tampa’s Orange Grove Middle School was driving teachers crazy with constant requests to get water, go to the bathroom or visit the clinic.
If he went to the clinic one more time with complaints of hunger, thirst and fatigue, he’d be suspended, his mother recalls.
“I was thinking he was just a whiner,” Kathy Miecznikowski says.
The aspiring ballet danseur’s antics also worried his instructors at Orange Grove and the Patel Conservatory. He wouldn’t dare miss rehearsals, countless hours of ballet and hip hop, but it looked as if he wasn’t giving his all.
“I actually thought he was giving me attitude,” says Peter Stark, chair of the Patel dance program at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. “This is not him, there’s something wrong.”
In late-November, John Paul and his mom suspected the flu or mononucleosis and headed to a walk-in clinic. The nurse practitioner noticed not only that the tiny 80-pounder had dropped nearly 30 pounds, but the blood sugar that controls his body’s energy was sky high.
Within a day the “problem child” was in the hospital, being treated as one of the roughly 2.3 million Americans living with Type 1 diabetes.
The diagnosis that John Paul’s pancreas had ceased producing insulin was a relief in some ways. He and his family learned that regular monitoring and insulin injections could bring his body back to health.
Indeed, John Paul insisted that as soon as he left the hospital, he go tell his dance instructors the news. “I knew I would keep on dancing, no matter what,” says the 13-year-old.
But the diagnosis also was just the beginning of a difficult blending of chronic illness and a tremendously busy schedule, Kathy says.
Mornings, for example, continue to be a struggle. Most days, John Paul ends up checking his blood sugar and eating breakfast in the car as Mom drives to school. It’s a daily chicken-or-egg decision as to whether the groggy teen should eat some carbs or wait and check his numbers first, she says.
It’s an oversimplification to say John Paul need only worry about the roughly 215 calories an hour someone his weight burns during ballet rehearsals. His disease, growing body and his workouts require constant, diligent monitoring of the calories and carbohydrates he consumes.
Since the diagnosis, the teen has been the one checking his blood sugar levels and handling injections, which average six a day. It hurts when other people inject insulin shots into his legs, he says. “I kind of know I have to do it, so I just get through it,” he says.
It’s not uncommon for dance rehearsals to total more than five hours some days. Earlier this month, John Paul and several classmates in Orange Grove’s dance magnet program simultaneously prepared for spring recitals and a major Patel performance of “Swan Lake.”
That’s why the picky eater has mastered fast-food menus, Kathy says. Chicken nuggets, a soft-serve ice cream cone and unsweetened iced tea can add up to a perfect meal between dance rehearsals. Carpool parents are a big help, too, making sure they have extra drinks in their cars.
“At some point, I have to slip in food somewhere,” Kathy says.
His instructors are acutely aware of what diabetes does to John Paul’s body. Orange Grove instructor Shana Perkins says she’s pushes John Paul in rehearsal to focus on health as much as choreography. “He probably gets annoyed because I ask so much,” Perkins says.
But they also are trying to challenge the talented young dancer to reach his potential. Perkins already wants John Paul to choreograph a piece about his diabetes. And Stark told the boy about a close friend, Zippora Karz, a Type 1 diabetic who danced for the famed New York City Ballet.
“I don’t coddle him,” Stark says. “I yell at him like I yell at all of them.”
Stark says John Paul’s at the age where many dancers decide if they want to pursue dance as a career. If John Paul stays on top of his disease, he can do what’s required.
“It’s a nuisance, but it’s something you can live with. …This doesn’t have to slow you down,” he says.
John Paul knows he can’t take a day off from diabetes. He goes everywhere with his insulin, blood sugar monitor and snacks. Likewise, he can’t imagine a day without dance. And the 13-year-old is determined he’ll learn to master them both, together.
“Now, I’m getting the hang of it,” he says.
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