Living Life on a Different Track

Diabetes won't stand in the way of budding race car driver Rich

By Stephen Gawlik
Staff Writer

When Christopher Rich '06 prepares a stock Volkswagen GTI for racing, he has to make sure the engine is tuned properly, the suspension is adjusted, his safety equipment is up to date - and that he has a place to store juice boxes and snacks.


Christopher Rich '06: "I don’t remember what life was like before diabetes. It's always been a huge part of my life."  (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
But the food and drink are no luxury items for Rich, an economics major from Wayland, Mass., who has lived with juvenile diabetes since age 5 and recently began pursuing a career as an amateur race car driver.

Juvenile diabetes sufferers, he explains, need to constantly monitor and adjust their blood sugar level because the disease takes away the body's ability to do so on its own. If you fail to be vigilant, he says, and your blood sugar level gets too low or too high, your body shuts itself off and you pass out.

"That would be bad news in any situation," said Rich, "especially on the track."

The need to store fruit juice and food in his car is a minor, but significant, example of how different life can be for diabetics like Rich, a lifelong car buff. Unlike adult-onset diabetes, juvenile diabetes typically requires a painful array of multiple daily injections and the careful monitoring of blood chemistry. Treatment needs to be adjusted as the diabetic moves into puberty and beyond.

"They are both very serious problems," said Rich. "But adult-onset diabetes can usually be controlled with diet and exercise.

"I don't remember what life was like before diabetes. It's always been a huge part of my life."

This Saturday, Rich will be depending on his feet instead of his racing skills to do his part for diabetes research. Rich is gathering support from Boston College students to participate in the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund's Walk to Cure Diabetes, which takes place Oct. 4 on the Esplanade.

By raising awareness on campus, Rich says he hopes to meet others at Boston College who may be struggling with diabetes.

Statistics from the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta indicate that sufferers of juvenile diabetes, or Type 1, account for between five to 10 percent of the approximately 17 million Americans who have diabetes.

Medical researchers have yet to come up with a cause for Type 1 diabetes, although theories range from environmental factors to genetic predisposition.

The future holds some promise for Rich, and others with Type 1 diabetes, as advances in technology have made it easier to monitor his condition.

Five years ago Rich was fitted with an insulin pump, a small, pager-sized device containing three days worth of insulin that runs through a tube into his upper leg.

"It's made things a lot easier," said Rich, who still has to check his blood sugar level but doesn't need nearly as many injections as he did before the pump.

For Rich, the cautious management of his condition, and the hope offered through new technologies like the pump, allows him to do things like race cars, an activity that would have been much more difficult in the past.

"I'm always careful to test my blood sugar before driving," he said. "I watch myself very carefully, and it's a lot of effort, but the pump makes everything much easier."

Rich races about once a month at local autocross events through a sports car club he and his father recently joined. In this format, drivers compete with each other over a timed course.

"Driving on the track is a much different experience from driving on the road. You really find out how good a driver you are," he said.

But at the moment, Rich is more interested in Saturday's walkathon for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund. In past years, the entire Rich family have joined with their Wayland neighbors to raise money and march for the JDRF.

The walkathon is held in more than 200 locations throughout the country and more than 750,000 people will participate in walks throughout the year, according to the JDRF. Last year, the walk raised $66 million for diabetes research.

"A little bit of support really goes a long way to help fund research," said Rich. "With all the recent advances the future is looking pretty good, but we're not there yet."

 

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