“Keep going”: dancer, teacher shares experience with Type 1 diabetes

Haley Kramer did not expect to be diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 21 years old, but she is a stronger person and dancer now because of it.

Haley Kramer (Contributed Image)

Kramer was born in Lafollette, Tennessee, where she grew up dancing and cheering at a gym called Twist N Shout. She danced, cheered and played soccer throughout high school before moving to Cookeville, Tennessee, to major in education at Tennessee Tech University. She was on their dance team all four years and was one of the captains her senior year.

She has done choreography for several college and high school dance teams, and this is her second year as a staff member with the Universal Dance Association. She currently teaches a few hip-hop classes at a dance studio in Cookeville called the Centre School of Dance.

Kramer was first diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes on May 10, 2019. It took her by surprise because she did not have previous health problems. After getting her blood drawn during a visit with her dermatologist, the lab called her and said her blood sugar levels were a bit high. She scheduled an appointment with her regular doctor. They ran tests through the month of April and discovered that her pancreas had antibodies attacking it.

“They called me and were like, ‘Haley, we finally got all the tests back. You are a Type 1 diabetic.’” Kramer said. “They caught it super early. So, I was really lucky because most people that find out usually are hospitalized for a little bit, or their blood sugars get way too high, and they go into a coma or crazy stuff. So, when I found out, I just kind of took it one day at a time. I was very overwhelmed and very confused.”

After her diagnosis, she took 10 hours of diabetes education and started going to an endocrinologist. She started incorporating extra tasks into her daily routine, such as monitoring her blood sugar levels, counting her carbs and matching those to her insulin ratios, taking insulin shots with meals and carrying snacks with her in case of a low blood sugar.  

“I think I just was going through life, like nothing’s ever going to happen to me,” Kramer said. “I’m a healthy person. I never get sick. I’ve never had the flu, like I’m so healthy, and then when that was told [to me], I felt like I had done something wrong, like I was a bad person. All these things just flooded me. All these emotions, and then once I realized – there’s nothing you can do about this. There’s no known cause and no known cure for diabetes, as of now. So, you’re just going to have to pick it up and run.”

Kramer said having Type 1 diabetes has forced her to see life differently than she did before. She is now more caring and empathetic towards others who struggle with chronic illnesses or disorders. It has also made her realize that she took the little things in life for granted.

“I used to just go, you know, just eat ice cream like it’s nothing,” Kramer said. “And then it’s like so many things that go into effect. How many carbs are in this ice cream? How much insulin am I going to have to take? Do I take it an hour late? Ice cream affects me a little differently. So, all those things to think about, but it’s made me stronger thinking about that – taking things more seriously in general.”

When she was diagnosed, she had just made UDA staff for the first time, was on a college dance team and teaching dance classes. She was initially worried about how the illness might affect her ability to dance.

“It was just hard,” Kramer said. “Because, I mean, college dance team – you’re in nationals practice, or you’re going to practice four hours at a time, practicing for football games or nationals, whatever it is. You don’t really have time to eat at practice. You might have a little snack. So, I was really worried that my blood sugar was going to get too low, and then I was like, ‘Okay,’ trying to find that balance of what I need to eat before practice to make sure I don’t get too high, but then I also don’t get low while I’m at practice.”

She said she was hesitant to tell her coach and teammates at first because she was overwhelmed by the idea of explaining something to people that she barely understood herself. She also did not want them to look at her differently. However, she eventually opened up and told them about her new condition.

Kramer called receiving support from the dance team following her diagnosis “awesome”. Like a family, they were there for her through good and bad times. That support, she said, was especially helpful while being away from her actual family during college.

She taught her coach and teammates about the disease, what it looks like and common misconceptions about it.

“It’s not like the stereotypical – you can’t eat sugar, blah, blah, blah,” Kramer said. “You can eat whatever you want, you just have to give yourself insulin to cover it so that your blood sugars aren’t so high.”

Kramer and a young, Type 1 diabetic dancer take a picture together showing off their continuous glucose monitors during a Tennessee Tech Dance Team Clinic. (Contributed Image)

Kramer wears a continuous glucose monitor, which is a sensor with a hair-thin needle that stays in her skin for seven to 10 days at a time. It automatically reads her blood sugar every five minutes, so she does not have to prick her fingers. The information is transmitted to a receiver, which Kramer’s teammates learned to be aware of during practice.

“They know when that’s red or that’s yellow,” Kramer said. “They hear that beep and they’re like, ‘Haley, are you okay?’ Just not being too much where they’re trying to micromanage it for me, but just enough of that support to know if I’ve had a hard day about it, they’ve been really nice for me to talk to, but not judging me about it or saying, ‘You need to eat better,’ or, ‘You need to be healthier,’ or, ‘You need to pay attention to that.’ Just being there for me, and if they know I’m having a low blood sugar and I need to sit down for a second to eat, they’re not holding that against me.”

As a dancer, Kramer wants to show people that her diabetes is not going to hold her back. She wants to be an example for other young dancers who might have diabetes – to show them it is possible to manage their condition and continue dancing. Kramer said it was hard sharing her story with people at first. However, she realized it makes her feel better to tell others about her experience, and she is stronger now because of it.

“It’s not going to hold me back from doing the things that I genuinely love to do, no matter what that is,” Kramer said. “So, if you do have a chronic illness, there’s going to be times where it’s tough, and I had a rough day, and my blood sugar’s been crazy, up and down, but I still have to go to dance practice, and I’m still going to go give it my all, and I know I’m going to be stronger for that. And it’s been teaching me lessons that other people aren’t going to have. So, it’s just another experience you can add your life that other people will never experience. And that’s kind of cool to say and share with other people later in life. So never look at it as a downfall or a flaw in your life, it’s just always something that’s made your life better, even if you don’t see it yet.”

One of her favorite quotes is “keep going,” and that is exactly what she intends to do.

Kramer graduated from TTU in May. She plans to continue teaching with UDA staff and her studio for a while, and she hopes to start coaching a dance team within the next year. Kramer is also teaching sixth-grade math and science at Algood Middle School in Cookeville, which she said has been awesome because another teacher there also has Type 1 diabetes.

“It’s really cool for the students to see adults that are living their everyday lives, that manage it well and don’t let it hold them back,” Kramer said. “So, as a teacher, I plan to obviously teach math and science, but teach kids how to be good people. And being a role model for them and let them also know that—I  mean, yes—I have diabetes, and that’s not going to hold me back, but whatever is going on in your life, whether it’s family-related, medical-related, mental-related, nothing can hold you back. It’s how you look at it and how you conquer that fear or whatever it is, and just keep going forward.”

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