HOPEWELL: Local man chosen as ambassador for diabetes benefit shares his story

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Hopewell resident Sam DiGaetano was 9 when he got the flu, but he didn’t expect it to evolve into a chronic illness. For unknown reasons, he said, the flu attacked his pancreas, forcing it to stop producing insulin.

“I was a mystery diagnosis for a while,” DiGaetano said of his “rough” two years at the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia.

DiGaetano was eventually diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 11, but he has managed to keep a positive attitude.

“It’s the best chronic illness I could have because I’m able to live a full life,” DiGaetano, now 23, said.

On June 11, DiGaetano spoke as an ambassador for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) Golf and Tennis Classic at Fiddler’s Elbow Country Club along with 17-year-old Joshua Engler of Park Ridge, NJ, who also has type 1 diabetes.

JDRF, which was founded in 1970, is a leading non-profit organization and has donated $2 billion to type 1 diabetes research to date.

“JDRF is an organization built on a grassroots model of people connecting in their local communities, collaborating regionally for efficiency and broader fundraising impact, and uniting on a national stage to pool resources, passion and energy,” JRDF’s website says.

This is DiGaetano’s first full year as a member of JDRF’s Young Leadership Committee (YLC), which is a group of “self-starting, enthusiastic young professionals who are interested in networking, advocacy, fundraising and spreading awareness of JDRF’s mission to treat, prevent and cure type 1 diabetes,” according to the website.

“I wanted to try and find a way to volunteer and give back,” DiGaetano said. He reached out to Maggie Ford, Development Coordinator, who helped him get more involved with the cause.

DiGaetano wasn’t expecting to be such a big part of the Golf and Tennis Classic, but is thankful for the opportunities YCL and JDRF have given him thus far.

“It was really exciting, because it gave me a chance to market and let people know about this very good cause,” he said.

JDRF’s goal, DiGaetano said, is to “turn type 1 into type none,” and educate the public about the illness that affects over 1 million Americans each year.

“It can be a struggle living with it,” he added. “It’s a portion of life we have to take into account at all times.”

While DiGaetano’s struggles with living with type 1 diabetes are currently more controlled, it wasn’t always easy.

“The biggest [adjustment] was taking insulin shots — no one wants to have to use needles all day,” he said. “When I was a kid, it was tough for me. We had to count fats, we had to count proteins to to adjust for blood sugar correction, so it’s definitely hard to learn that. Now, it’s like there’s a calculator in my head.”

While in elementary school, DiGaetano played baseball, but always had a love for golf.

He began to take golf seriously in middle school and participated in competitions, later winning three state championships when playing for Hopewell Valley Central High School’s golf team and went on to play Division I golf at Rider University.

DiGaetano said golf is an ideal sport for Type 1 diabetics, as it gives them more “flexibility.”

“While you get a good workout in, you can also manage your blood sugar and be able to snack while you’re playing,” he said.

For DiGaetano, there are many parallels between golf and having diabetes.

“Calculating what shot you’re going to hit is a lot like dosing for blood sugar and dosing for a meal,” he said. “It’s a numbers game, much like golf is.”

Through the lessons that he has learned while playing golf, DiGaetano said the sport has acted as a stress reliever, allowing him to focus on the game with fewer worries on his insulin levels.

DiGaetano said he is grateful for JDRF and the community the organization has formed.

“I’m at that point where it’s nice to have a community where they understand what we’re all going through, and that’s what JDRF does for me,” he said.

DiGaetano offered advice to those recently diagnosed with type 1 diabetes — take it day by day.

“There’s no set guidelines as to how a type 1 diabetic should and shouldn’t live their life, aside from the fact you need to be on top of it,” he said. “Just stay positive and do your best to stay healthy. It can be frustrating to check your blood sugar in public, but you got to take the time and realize it’s going to make you stronger.”