Living with a chronic disease is challenging enough for anyone, but even more so when you are an active 12-year-old boy. Five years after his diagnosis, however, Jake Fine of West Windsor not only is managing his condition, but thriving, both as a sixth grader at Community Middle School in Plainsboro, and as a defenseman on the Lightning Lacrosse team. His dad, Rick Fine, a physician, is especially aware of the challenges involved. “For a kid his age to play lacrosse is unique because it’s such a physically demanding, unpredictable sport. Full-grown athletes know how much insulin they need. With growing children, it’s very difficult to calibrate, especially when they are so active.”
In people who have juvenile diabetes, also known as Type 1, the pancreas produces little or no insulin, and so the body’s regulation of its own blood sugars needs insulin from an external source. Jake moved to an insulin pump in January, 2008, but he also has a personal safety net, a very special band of “blood brothers” who help make sure he is safe and help give his parents peace of mind. “Jake knows when he is going low, he can feel dizzy or woozy,” says his father. “Adolescent boys might find it hard to admit they don’t feel well, but Jake is not afraid to say I’m not feeling well, I’ve got to come off the field, and part of that is knowing that his personal meter is balanced by the watchdogs on his behalf, and those are his friends.”
There are six of them in all, including Jake, and five of them play lacrosse together. (Grant Keller was not available for this interview). Their theme song could very well be “Stand by Me,” a close-knit group of kids and their parents his family has known since they moved to West Windsor 16 years ago.
Jake’s diagnosis was heart-wrenching, says his mother, Debi Fine, a business executive, but much easier to manage with the unconditional support of his friends and their families. “With diabetes, the diagnosis continues to increase and is now greater than 1 in 300 kids. Several friends have said to us, it could be my kid,” she says. “But Jake’s friends make it easy. I know that no matter where these kids go, I know they are watching out for him, their parents are watching out for him, and we are not alone.”
She says his friends have adopted a buddy system that was almost instinctive. “What blows me away is that over these last five years, nobody has ever had to ask any of these kids to keep an eye on Jake. If something were to happen on the bus, they know to alert the bus driver. If something were to happen at school, they know to let the teacher know, or the nurse. They just jump right in.”
“When he was diagnosed, it was like it directly hit my family too,” recalls Kyle Jacobson. “My mom was crying. I sat there and thought about it and when I saw him I was surprised because he hadn’t changed at all, he didn’t look or act different. He was the same best friend and I knew it was a new change that we were going to have to work with and we did. Whenever we’re with him, we make sure he’s okay, but basically it also means not paying too much attention and treating him like a normal friend like we always we would.”
Part of being Jake’s friend means knowing their homes are stocked with seltzer water in case he gets dehydrated, and also with things like chocolate, cake icing, and Gatorade in case he needs some quick sugar energy. “Jake always keeps an emergency kit with him with drinks and snacks he can get to quickly when he needs it,” says Brett Schenkman, a lacrosse teammate. “I remember once when it got left behind at the field and I noticed it there and I brought it over to his car. I know that if his sugar goes low, it’s dangerous.”
In addition to his band of “blood brothers,” Jake has an older brother, Daniel, 16 years old, who is a sophomore at the Peddie School in Hightstown. Five years ago, when Jake was first diagnosed, the two brothers sat at the kitchen table to do some brainstorming. They knew that their family would participate in the various walks to raise money for a cure, and they knew their parents were going to become involved in corporate fund raising. But they also decided that they would roll up their sleeves and start their own fund raising project.
“We decided to raise one dollar at a time,” explains Jake. “We knew there would be power in numbers, so if we could get one person to give us one dollar, with five people we could raise five dollars, and who knows what could happen.” What happened was something called “Dollars for Diabetes,” a grassroots effort that has raised more than $42,000. Dollars for Diabetes is the kids’ initiative of the foundation called Team Brotherly Love that has raised over $620,000 in the last three years.
The Utz Pretzel Company, based in Hanover, PA, donated plastic pretzel barrels that have been placed in businesses around the state, including at Aljon’s and Capuano in West Windsor, It’s a Grind in Plainsboro, Olives in Princeton, the Americana Diner in East Windsor, and Robbins Pharmacy in Trenton. The barrels also went to 110 Quick Chek convenience stores, which alone have brought in $10,000 towards finding a cure for juvenile diabetes.
In recognition that philanthropy should not be limited just to home, the money, through the International Diabetes Federation, also supports a diabetes clinic in Bolivia, one of many underserved nations throughout the world where a child with diabetes dies within three weeks without treatment. Because of his efforts in helping with diabetes awareness, Jake was invited to speak at the United Nations on World Diabetes Day last November. He shared his experiences about life with diabetes, the challenges, and expressed how fortunate he feels to have support in this country and the support of his friends.
Jake’s band of blood brothers has also been very active in raising money and awareness about diabetes, not shy at all about passing the barrel around themselves, especially at Lightning Lacrosse games.
Says Jack Burke, another lacrosse teammate: “It feels good when we are out collecting money because we know every little thing makes a difference, and every dollar will count.” He says Jake is a great role model for the other kids on the lacrosse team because he puts everything into playing his best. “In lacrosse he’s not different than anyone else. He tries and he’s really good at it. It doesn’t seem like his diabetes is any kind of disability for him because he does really well with it.”
Glenn Robbins, another one of the “blood brothers,” says, “I know that the money is going to help my very good friend Jake and it’s going for a good cause and you know it could be saving someone’s life. All of us, we are Team Brotherly Love and we’re all one big family.”
“Life has its challenges and we are very fortunate to live in a wonderful community, and to have friends and family who are willing to share the burden and the risk is unique, it’s huge,” says Rick Fine. “We’ve had fabulous nurses at our schools all along the way — Linda Meyers, his first nurse at Dutch Neck School, Val Lieggi at Village School, and Mary Doyle at Community Middle School. It’s about community awareness, the hope that the community is open and inviting enough to help us.”
“It’s been a big change, living with diabetes,” says Jake, “but I feel great because I know there’s someone to support me every step of the way. My friends help me remember to stay safe, and at the same time, they help me forget that I have to live with this disease so I can live normally.”
Third Annual Juvenile Diabetes Golf & Tennis Open to Benefit Children With Diabetes, Lawrenceville’s Greenacres Country Club, Monday, June 15. The 18-hole golf tournament will start at 11:45 a.m. Registration begins at 10 a.m. with lunch starting at 11 a.m. for golfers, 1 p.m. for tennis players. A cocktail reception will start at 5 p.m. followed by an awards dinner, a tremendous tricky tray raffle with incredible prizes and a silent auction.
Fee for golfers is $395, for tennis players $195, a portion of which is tax deductible. Dinner guests are welcome at $75 per person; children are free. Corporate sponsorships are available. For more information, to register or become a sponsor, call the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Mid Jersey chapter, at 888-422-9590 or at 732-296-7171.