Carolyn Whittaker, 42, is a self-described “chocoholic” who loves to bake. She’s also an avid runner who has done several marathons.
A tall, slim, attractive mother of three, you might also be surprised to learn this active woman with asweet tooth has been living with diabetes since age 29.
While the initial diagnosis came as a shock, Whittaker hasn’t let that slow her down. Almost immediately after learning she had Type I diabetes in 1999, Whittaker went online to seek out the American Diabetes Association in order to look for information and volunteer opportunities.
“It prompted me to get involved,” she said during a recent interview with your Catholic Herald, describing her work with the association as one way she can give back to the community.
Prior to her own diagnosis, Whittaker was familiar with diabetes to the extent that her mother, Elda Spitz, was a Type 2 diabetic for several years.
Since the two types of the illness differ and don’t display the same symptoms, Whittaker failed to realize that the extreme weight loss and unquenchable thirst she experienced were actually signs of the illness.
Parish: St. Catherin Parish, Mapleton
Occupation: Manager of business intelligence for Provade
Book recently read: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Book 1) by J.K. Rowling. She’s reading it along with her 8-year-old daughter, Elyse
Favorite movie: Parenthood
Favorite quotation: “It’s not do what you love, it’s love what you do”
At the time, Whittaker, then single, was training for what would have been her fourth marathon. It was to take place in Dublin, Ireland, and since she had been training for several months, she attributed her 11-pound weight loss to the running she had been doing.
“About half way through my training schedule, I was traveling for work in Canada and noticed symptoms. I was thirsty and I remember on the flight back, asking the flight attendant for two waters, but nothing seemed to be quenching my thirst,” said Whittaker, a graduate of St. Monica Elementary School and Whitefish Bay High School in Whitefish Bay. She earned her degree in international relations from the University of Minnesota in 1992 and moved back to the Milwaukee area in 1994.
Some 13 years after the diagnosis, Whittaker clearly remembers sitting in the doctor’s office with her mother when the doctor came in with a huge box of syringes, alcohol swabs and glucose meters, all items a diabetic needs.
“I was sitting with my mom and just started crying,” she said, recalling that her mother held her hand, calmly telling her youngest daughter to have faith that everything will work out OK.
“I am so glad she was there,” Whittaker said of her mom’s presence when she learned she had Type I diabetes, the form of the illness that used to be called juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes because it often appears during childhood or the adolescent years. This form of diabetes requires insulin shots for the rest of the patient’s life.
Between the shock of the diagnosis and the tears she was shedding as she faced an unknown future, Whittaker remembers her mother, knowing that she hoped to marry and start a family one day, asking the doctor about potential pregnancies.
“Oh yes, of course,” Whittaker remembers the doctor saying, explaining she would have to be extra cautious with monitoring blood sugar levels.
Type 1 diabetes results from an immune system response that damages the patient’s pancreas and leaves him or her unable to make insulin.
With the exception of testing her blood sugar with a prick of a needle about six times a day and administering insulin to herself three times a day, life has changed little for Whittaker, she said.
“The only way it’s really impacted me is in a positive way,” she said, explaining it has helped her become more aware of ways she can volunteer to help others with the illness. “Most of my volunteer time goes to the American Diabetes Association and I feel, in that respect, I am giving back to the community.”
Whittaker married, but is now divorced, and is the mother to Elyse, 8, Christian, 6, and Josie, 4.
“She became a mother three times, and each pregnancy, she was very careful,” said her mother, Spitz. “She was always very grateful to be pregnant, grateful that she could have a baby with this condition, and had all the faith and trust in the Lord,” said Spitz, adding that Whittaker carefully monitored her health and blood sugar levels through the pregnancies.
Whittaker said she still enjoys baking and eating occasional sweets, but it’s all done in moderation.
“I have to watch my carbs, and I can have chocolate, but I might take a bite of the kids’ dessert or a little square of chocolate,” she said, explaining she’s learned to eat smaller portions.
Having faith and giving back are two lessons Whittaker said she learned from her parents, Elda and Jim Spitz, members of Lumen Christi Parish, Mequon.
“Attitude is everything. Having a positive attitude. I tell the kids that if something bad is going to happen, if you have a positive attitude, it will probably be OK,” she said, noting that’s one of the lessons she learned growing up in a faith-filled home.
When Whittaker researched the American Diabetes Association after her diagnosis, she was thrilled to find the organization hosted a marathon in Hawaii, which she ran in 2000. She carried power gel and a glucometer with her on the run and regularly checked her blood sugar and finished fine. The following year she trained and coached runners for another marathon sponsored by the organization in Rome.
In the years since, the association no longer sponsors marathons, as Whittaker explained there are not that many diabetic runners, but its efforts now focus on an annual “Step Out: Walk to Stop Diabetes.” Locally it was held last week on the Milwaukee Riverwalk, and Whittaker’s Walkers, a team including Whittaker, her mother, and sisters, Susan Joy and Mary Bronek, walked and raised nearly $2,000 for the cause.
Proud of the way her daughter has handled her diagnosis and illness, Spitz said, “I feel she is very strong in handling her disease. She is a very faith-filled person and I know that she is careful about the things she does. For instance, she was a marathon runner, and still runs because it is good exercise, but she does not run marathons. She is grateful for the things she can do.”