Health & Fitness

He loves being a NASCAR driver. Diabetes isn’t going to stop him.

Ryan Reed stands by his car before qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race at Talladega Superspeedway on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, in Talladega, Alabama.
Ryan Reed stands by his car before qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race at Talladega Superspeedway on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, in Talladega, Alabama. AP

The diagnosis felt like a death sentence.

In the back of his mind, 17-year-old Ryan Reed knew diabetes was a possibility. He had Googled his symptoms — fatigue, rapid weight loss — and had seen the possible connection.

But he didn't believe it, not until his California doctor confirmed he had type 1 diabetes. In type 1 — which affects 5 to 10 percent of all diabetes cases — the immune system destroys the cells that produce insulin. Those with type 1 have to take insulin daily.

“How will this affect my racing?” Reed, now 23, remembers asking his doctor. He was about to move to North Carolina, the hub of racing, to drive for a top NASCAR developmental team.

“You will never race again,” the doctor told him.

More than five years later, Reed is still racing, having just placed 16th in the Ford EcoBoost 300 10 days ago at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. A glucose monitor on his dashboard and a sensor in his abdomen help him keep an eye on his glucose levels, even during the races.

“I felt like diabetes wasn't going to hold me back,” Reed said.

Starting with a go-kart

Reed’s racing career began with a go-kart when he was 4.

His father, Mark, who had also raced cars, bought the go-kart for his son in Bakersfield, California, and racing became a shared love for the two of them. By the time he was 6, Reed said, he knew he wanted to be a NASCAR driver.

“It wasn’t just words,” he said. “It was what I wanted to do.”

As a teenager, he accumulated multiple championship wins, including the Legends Division Track Champion at Toyota Speedway at Irwindale in California. At 17, Reed was about to drive for Kyle Busch Motorsports in North Carolina when he received the diabetes diagnosis and his doctor’s warning that he wouldn’t be able to race and that he had to monitor his blood-sugar levels.

“At first glance to me, diabetes was a disease that was going to kill your dreams,” Reed said.

But he began researching athletes with type 1 diabetes: Gary Hall Jr., who won three Olympic gold medals in swimming after his diagnosis; Jay Cutler, an NFL quarterback with the Chicago Bears; and Charlie Kimball, an IndyCar driver.

That, he said, was the motivation he needed.

Monitoring sugar while racing

In his research, Reed also found Dr. Ann Peters, the director of the University of Southern California clinical diabetes program. Six weeks after his diagnosis, he reached out to her and the two began focusing on how Reed could monitor his sugar levels while racing. (He wouldn’t be able to pull off his gloves and prick his finger during a race.)

The solution, Reed found, was a DexCom continuous glucose monitor: a sensor, roughly the thickness of a couple human hairs, and a transmitter placed on his abdomen. The transmitter tracks glucose levels throughout an entire day, and predicts where blood sugar levels might be headed. Results are available on a monitor or on a phone app.

“The peace of mind it brings to families is huge,” said Jorge Valdes, DexCom’s chief technical officer and a University of Miami graduate. He said the company’s next step is to look for ways to help monitor type 2 diabetes.

Using a continuous glucose monitor is “an absolutely crucial difference,” said Dr. Nicholas Argento, a Maryland endocrinologist who uses the monitor to manage his diabetes. “You can see not only where you are, but where you’re going and how fast.”

The FDA has recently approved a new device that monitors glucose levels and administers insulin. The Medtronic MiniMed 670G, which will be available in the spring, is for patients 14 and older with type 1 diabetes. The system will include a sensor that attaches to the skin to monitor glucose levels; an insulin pump strapped to the body; and a patch connected to the pump that will deliver the insulin.

On Reed’s dashboard, next to the gauges measuring his car’s performance, sits his monitor. (He doesn’t use an insulin pump as his doctors are concerned about the potential heat of the pump’s tubes and the insulin being too warm.)

He’ll glance down every few minutes to see his insulin level, a drink nearby in case his blood sugar might dip. In the pit crew, there’s someone ready to give him a shot of glucagon in case his blood sugar levels drop too quickly — a precaution he has practiced but hasn’t had to use yet during a race.

“You just gotta build those safety nets,” Reed said.

A good night’s sleep

For Bonnie Kessler Kaufman, a Cooper City resident, the best safety net is the alarm the monitor triggers whenever her 12-year-old daughter’s blood sugar is low. Once Emily got the monitor, Kaufman was able to sleep through the night for the first time in a year and a half, as the need to wake up to check her daughter’s blood sugar was eliminated.

“It changed our lives, both of us,” Kaufman said.

The monitor, she said, is part of the technology that has helped her daughter continue to perform as a singer and pursue her passions. Now, Kaufman said, Emily is debating becoming a doctor who specializes in treating diabetes in children.

“It makes her just want to go out and inspire people and help in any way she can,” Kaufman said.

That’s exactly what Reed, whose season is over for the year after the Homestead race, hopes to inspire in people with diabetes.

“Most things worth doing don’t come easy,” he said. “Let diabetes motivate you.”

This story was updated on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016.