Karen Talmadge is executive VP, co-founder, and chief science officer of Kyphon, a company focusing on cures for spinal fractures, which was acquired by Medtronic in 2007. She’s also an entrepreneur and mother of a type 1 daughter, turned diabetes advocate. See my interview with Karen from last year here. We were deep into our conversation about the challenges of bringing up a child with diabetes when she mentioned, “don’t forget the siblings!”
“Oh, you have another child?” I responded with surprise…
A day after my husband and I diagnosed our daughter’s type 1 diabetes when she was a toddler, I received a visit at the hospital from the wife of a work colleague — someone I knew, but not well. At her request, we went outside and sat at a small table in a sunny garden. She produced a soft yellow teddy bear whose paws could Velcro together — which, she said, could be clapping when our daughter tested, or got a shot. She then explained that she grew up with an older brother who had diabetes, diagnosed when he was 6. She talked about how overwhelming her parents found his care, and how she felt ignored. As she matured, she came to understand intellectually what had happened — but some of her feelings of resentment still remained.
I thanked her profusely, especially for taking the time to come and share her story. That evening, I talked with my husband about how to address this with our son, who had just turned 6. In a way, we had already started — we had told him as soon as we confirmed the diagnosis, and what it would mean. My husband and I were planning to trade off staying overnight with our daughter in the hospital, so that the other one was at home with our son. We had brought him him to the hospital that day, which had a wonderful play center, and were including him in all discussions he cared to be part of. We also made sure that we assured him that he was not to blame (because small children are self-centered and worry about this, no matter how inappropriately from an adult perspective).
Once our daughter returned home, we vowed to continue to be conscious of how what we were treating the two of them, and how her diabetes might impact our son. Initially, we included him in everything, while not asking him to help when he did not volunteer — we did not want to create resentment. We focused on ensuring he had his own activities, made sure one of us was spending time with him whenever possible, and took him on two special week-long trips — one when he was 7 years old, and one when he was 8 — specifically, we told him, so one of us could spend alone-time with him.
As they both grew, and our daughter’s care became increasingly under her own control, and we stopped thinking so intensely about the issue. Through a combination of vigilance and luck, our daughter was never hospitalized again for her diabetes during the rest of her childhood, but if something serious had happened, I feel certain we would have also snapped back into the mode of putting additional special focus on our son.
I recently asked our son, now an adult, if he felt ignored or excluded because of his sister’s diabetes, and he responded: perhaps a little, perhaps a few times, but not in any important way. To the extent that this is true, we thank my unexpected visitor, with her thoughtful gifts, those many years ago. I’m sure many parents aren’t as fortunate to get this sage advice early on, and don’t realize what an impact one child’s diabetes can have on a sibling’s childhood.
Thank you, Karen. I’ve often wondered what it was like for the ‘others’ in the family. Anyone out there grow up with a diabetic sibling? If so, did you feel invisible?