BILLINGS -- Kindergarten can be intimidating to a 5-year-old, but when Owen McCaughey started to have accidents and was scurrying to the bathroom every 15 minutes, his mother took note.
The frequent urination, excessive thirst, crabbiness and sweet night breath all spelled trouble.
“I didn’t feel good,” said Owen, who is now 7 and attending Arrowhead Elementary. “I felt like something was wrong with me.”
Never did Susan McCaughey, mother of three children, suspect Type 1 diabetes. She was convinced the doctors had made a mistake. How could this happen?
Her husband, John, was a professional powerlifter; no one in her family has diabetes.
“I didn’t know anything,” said Susan McCaughey. “In my mind, diabetes is for someone weighing 450 pounds and eating at McDonald’s all the time. We eat healthy, well-balanced meals. I just didn’t think it could be true.”
Diabetes is one of the most common chronic diseases among children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Type 1 diabetes develops when the body’s immune system destroys pancreatic cells that make the hormone insulin that regulates blood sugar. It normally strikes children and young adults, but it can occur at any age. People with Type 1 diabetes must have daily insulin injections or be on an insulin pump to survive.
In 2008-09, the most current year for which data was available, an estimated 18,436 youth were diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.
Owen wears a glucose monitor made by Dexcom Inc. It measures his blood sugar every five minutes and displays it on a nearby hand-held receiver the size of a pager, which helps monitor his blood sugar for spikes and potentially deadly drops.
But it can’t transmit his data to the Internet, which meant his parents couldn’t let Owen too far out of sight, much less stay overnight to a friend’s house, for fear he could slip into a coma. She worried about him at school, too.
That’s where NightScout, a homemade system created by software engineers, many with diabetic children, comes in. The system essentially hacks the Dexcom device and uploads its data to the Internet, which lets Susan see Owen’s blood-sugar levels on her Pebble smart watch wherever she is.
“When you’re watching this, it’s pretty damn freaky,” Susan said.
While she places a great deal of faith in the system, she acknowledges that like with any technology, it isn’t perfect. It has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
“We need this technology to keep our kids safe,” Susan said.
When the McCaugheys moved to Billings from Texas in May, they sought the medical help of Dr. Sharon Zemel, a pediatric endocrinologist at St. Vincent Healthcare. She declined to comment specifically on NightScout.
“Type 1 diabetes requires constant care and attention with the goal of letting a child be a child,” Zemel said. “Owen and his family work very hard toward this goal and are quite successful. Each family develops their own ways of coping, while maximizing health and life. We strive to help them do that as best we can.”
Susan said she and her husband are just happy to have a doctor who cares.
“Dr. Zemel is everything that a doctor should be. When we lived in Texas, Owen was just a number. Literally, just a file number.”