Diabetic student gets into
the swim of college life

A look at the hands of Emory swimmer Brad Davey reveals chapped skin and calluses on his fingertips. They're the result of countless pricks for self-administered blood tests.

Brad Davey has diabetes. Every day he must check his glucose, or blood sugar, levels. During swim season, he checks in the morning, before lunch, before practice, after practice, before dinner and at bedtime. Six times a day for six months adds up to more than 1,000 needle jabs into his skin. Multiply that by the number of years since Davey's ninth grade diagnosis and you understand the calluses on his fingertips.

The difficulty in managing diabetics actually forced Davey to quit college swimming for nearly two years. Being away from home for the first time, he struggled with his disease, mostly due to his diet, sleeping patterns and the demands of college swimming.

The blood sugar level in any human rises and falls throughout the day, depending on several variables including the intensity and duration of physical exertion, the amount of carbohydrates in a meal, the amount of sleep one gets, and more. Many diabetics need insulin to keep glucose levels in a safe zone. This becomes a tricky guessing game based on intuition and experience. Davey had managed in high school with the help of his swim coach, but found himself on his own at Emory with an entirely new set of variables. Leaving the swim team eliminated one factor from Davey's insulin equation. "The important thing was to get priorities in order, namely school and my health," he said.

No more junk food
Davey has improved his diet to the point of memorizing the amount of carbohydrates in his favorite foods. The typical college student diet of junk food is out the window. Instead, his lunches usually consist of two bologna and cheese sandwiches, two hard-boiled eggs, yogurt and a banana.

Lawrence Phillips, Davey's doctor at The Emory Clinic, encouraged his patient to return to exercise, which improves the efficiency of insulin absorption in the body. Davey tried to exercise on his own, but missed having a coach to push him and the cameraderie of teammates. "I thought about coming back last year, but I wimped out," he said. "But this year I was determined, because I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, that I was not going to develop a pattern of walking away from challenges."

Now a junior, Davey is slowly catching up to his times as a high school senior. Back then, his times were nearly fast enough to qualify for the college NCAA Division III national championships. "We recruited Brad as a potential national qualifer in the 100-yard breaststroke event," said Emory Head Coach Peter Smith.

The intensity and cyclical nature of college swimming practices has been a challenge for Davey. As he works to regain his old form, progress has been halting and frustrating, he said. Some days are light workouts, others are grueling marathons. As a precaution, a glucose solution is nearby to replenish his blood sugars in case of insulin reaction. "Sometimes it's hard to tell if you're just working hard or [if it's] low blood sugar," he said.

Only once in high school did Davey experience an insulin reaction. Although conscious, he collapsed and had to be pulled from the pool by a teammate and fed a can of Coca-Cola.

Athletics drive academic discipline
Davey constantly reminds himself that his motivation to swim is a combination of the health benefits derived from exercising and his teammates, a built-in circle of friends. Swimming also forces him to discipline himself to tackle his academic load. He is one of 19 people in his 1,000-member class to be named a Woodruff Scholar.

"I'm not sure what kind of a contribution I can make to the team at the conference and national championships," he said, modestly. But Coach Smith has a more optimistic view of Davey's comeback. "Brad has the capability of swimming as fast, if not faster, than he did in high school," Smith said. "Sometimes, he underestimates himself."

Although his father also has diabetes, Davey admits that he underestimated the threat of the disease when first diagnosed. "I was fairly ignorant," he said. "People do die of complications. But with proper management, you can live a long, productive life. If some ninth grader were diagnosed today with diabetes, I'd tell them to take up swimming. It was one of the best things I've done."

-John Arenberg

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