High-tech monitoring helps keep diabetic triathlete


When doctors diagnosed Erin Spineto with Type 1 diabetes, she spent two days in the hospital learning how to test her own blood sugar levels and give herself insulin shots. Before she was sent on her way, she was warned that all demanding activities in which she couldn’t self-monitor her blood sugar — such as flying a plane solo, driving a big-rig or sailing a boat on her own — were strictly off limits.

And then there was that last admonition that she needed to dedicate herself to a daily fitness routine or else face potentially devastating consequences, which included losing a foot or suffering a heart attack.

Spineto, a 19-year-old UCSD sophomore at the time, took the 1996 diagnosis in stride. She’d been physically active most of her life, and considering that she was being tested for leukemia and cancer at the time, her diagnosis actually qualified as good news.

“Honestly,” she said, “I was glad it was just diabetes.”

But it occurred to Spineto almost immediately that the blueprint for survival her doctors prescribed was inadequate. She sensed that over the long haul, the drudgery of going to the gym every day wouldn’t cut it.

So she added her own wrinkle, which she believes turned a prescription for surviving Type 1 diabetes to one for actually living with the disease. She incorporated a sense of fun and adventure that she says are part of her personality to make the endless hours on the treadmill mean more than just a way to ward off catastrophe.

And it didn’t take Spineto very long to know this.

“I left the hospital on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, and by the next weekend, I was out backpacking in the middle of nowhere,” she said.

These days, she’s taking her adventurous spirit to another level.

Last summer she completed a grueling 12.5-mile swim around Key West, Fla. That marked a return to near where she completed a 100-mile solo sailing journey on a 25-foot Catalina in the Florida Keys in 2011.

Next for Spineto is a 100-mile stand-up paddleboard journey planned for this summer that will take her from Myrtle Beach, S.C., to Wilmington, N.C., through the Intercoastal Waterway in four days.

“I like to do crazy things, that’s just in my personality,” she said. “I didn’t want to work out for nothing; I wanted to have something to train for. It’s just not because I want to keep myself healthy for the next 80 years.”

Spineto acknowledges that none of this would have been possible if not for technological advancements that came a decade after her diagnosis. In particular, she describes a blood-monitoring device manufactured by Dexcom as a game-changer.

The device remotely checks her blood every five minutes, cautioning her with an alarm if her blood sugar levels get too high or too low.

“The technology has gotten so good, it’s not as risky to do these things anymore,” Spineto said. “I’m glad that I’m living now and not when things were much more difficult.”

Spineto, a mother of two who teaches sixth-grade science at Aviara Oaks Middle School in Carlsbad, said she hopes to educate and motivate others who struggle with the lifelong challenges that Type 1 diabetics face.

She wrote a book titled “Islands and Insulin: A Diabetic Sailor’s Memoir.”

“My mission with all of this is for people with diabetes to realize that adding adventure to your life gives you a renewed sense of motivation,” she said.

“You have a lifelong disease — some of us fight it 60, maybe 80 years. It’s hard to stay motivated to do everything you need to do every single day. But if you (plan) an adventure, then all these little decisions I make — it’s no longer so I don’t have consequences when I’m like 80; it’s so I can be in tip-top shape to adventure 10-11 months out.”

She said that planning for fun adventures provides the motivation she needs to get through some tough days.

“It brings all these long-term consequences into the short term,” she said. “Instead of it being about long-term consequences, like losing a foot or having a heart attack — all these things your doctor scares you with — I want to be able to train really hard tomorrow, so I want to make sure that I take care of my blood sugar today.

“It’s so easy to put things off when you know the consequences are 50 years off.”