Mary and Dick Allen were thrilled to be spending the Christmas holidays with their daughter Jennifer, son-in-law Kevin and their two young children, 2½-year-old Hannah and 7-month-old Jake.
That winter Mary remembered that Hannah had been fighting a persistent cold and she looked very thin compared to the chubby 2-year-old she was used to seeing. Her granddaughter was constantly thirsty, she went through an inordinate amount of diapers, and she complained her eyes hurt - troubling symptoms that she found hard to explain away by a bad cold.
Back home in the Bay Area on New Year’s Day, Jennifer and Kevin were concerned enough about Hannah’s health to take her to the pediatric emergency room at Marin General Hospital. As an afterthought, Kevin mentioned that Hannah was urinating frequently and constantly thirsty. Alarmed by her symptoms, the attending physician tested Hannah’s blood sugar level and sure enough, the results revealed that her blood sugar was dangerously high, indicating that she had Type 1 diabetes. In hindsight, Hannah had the classic constellation of diabetic symptoms.
The Allens had returned home from the movies that afternoon to find a note from a neighbor that their daughter had been frantically trying to reach them. They learned that Hannah had been hospitalized and diagnosed with diabetes. Looking back, Dick says “This was a very emotional time for our family. We were unsure of what this diagnosis would mean for our granddaughter and how it would affect our family.”
While the doctors stabilized Hannah’s condition, they gave Jennifer and Kevin a crash course on how to manage their daughter’s disease as Mary flew to the Bay Area to care for Jake. Desperate to educate himself, Dick turned to Dr. Don Williams, now retired but practicing endocrinologist at the time and to Dr. Kris Iyer, himself a Type 1 diabetic, an endocrinologist and medical director of the Diabetes Center at Hoag Hospital, to learn all he could about the disease.
Allen, a Hoag Hospital board member since 1990, was thankful that he had a relationship with Hoag. With the help of Rick Martin, Hoag’s senior vice president of patient care and chief nursing officer, Dick and Mary received diabetes training and in part, did this so that they could help care for their grandkids. “Diabetes is particularly difficult at such a young age,” says Dick. “Parents are literally tethered to their child by the demands of diabetes care.”
Now 9½ years old, Hannah feels the impact of her disease in ways any preteen would - the regular monitoring of her blood sugar and the need for four or five insulin shots per day leaves her more reliant on her parents at a time when children her age are just beginning to explore their independence. To give the family a little more flexibility, Hannah decided to try the insulin pump. The pump automatically infuses a preset base level of insulin throughout the day and also administers an as-needed “bolus” injection that is determined by her blood sugar levels and mealtime carbohydrate counts.
The finger pricking blood sugar tests are done 10 or more times each day and Hannah can now routinely do them on her own. The carb-counting is more complicated, however, and she needs help with it. She punches all this vital information into her pump, waits for her parents to confirm the pump’s recommended bolus dosage, and then pushes a button that tells the pump to go ahead. It is a tedious process, but mistakes can be disastrous so she must pay attention.
Once again, Dick visited Hoag to learn all he could about the device. But he didn’t stop there. For three days, Dick wore the pump with the catheter attached - the only difference was that he received saline injections instead of insulin. He says, “It got in the way but I wasn’t going to take it off because I knew that Hannah wasn’t going to be able to take hers off. I really wanted to have the same experience she was having. The huge difference is she will be having the experience for the rest of her life.”
That New Year’s Day more than seven years ago changed the Allens’ life in countless ways as they cycled through the emotions of dealing with their granddaughter’s illness - first shock, then sadness and ultimately acceptance and a desire to educate and support others. The experience has set them on a path dedicated to finding a cure for diabetes and provided a focus for their philanthropic endeavors, which includes working with Hoag and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
For the Allens, their granddaughter’s illness has led to a resolve extending beyond the experiences of their own family. They see it as their mission to educate and support others who live with diabetes. The Allens have been particularly struck by how costly it is to manage diabetes. “I was stunned to learn that the insulin test strips can cost about $10 a day - that really opened my eyes to the expenses of this disease,” says Mary.
For low-income or uninsured families the costs can be devastating, which ultimately results in sick kids and even sicker adults. Moreover, because of a shortage of resources, families can wait up to four months or more for follow-up care from a pediatric endocrinologist and many kids are forced to travel outside the county to get their care.
Mary and Dick say this is precisely why they have taken a leadership role in the development of the new Diabetes Center at Hoag. In an unprecedented demonstration of commitment to diabetes care, Hoag, in partnership with CHOC and through CHOC, the Pediatric Adolescent Diabetes Research Education (PADRE), is collaborating to ensure that all members of our community have timely access to expert diabetes prevention, care and education.
Allens have made a $1 million leadership gift and are helping to build a larger endowment that will enable the Center to offer a full array of services and importantly, to cover services for those who can’t afford to pay. The George Hoag Family Foundation has shown their commitment to diabetes care with a $1 million matching gift. Dick sees the new Center developing as a model program, delivering the very best diabetes care services for the people of Orange County.
Dr. Iyer says, “Mary and Dick make a great husband and wife team, they lead by example and make this earth a better place to live. They never seek fame or glory, which they so richly deserve.” Iyer continues, “Hoag is fortunate to have them as patrons with compassion and love for others.”
With the outstanding support of her family and the latest medical advances, today Hannah is a thriving and healthy girl entering the fourth grade. It is such support that the Allens and Hoag Hospital are committed to ensuring for every diabetes patient and their family.