Arlington’s ‘Chief for a Day’ is a diabetes myth buster

ARLINGTON — She was just 5 years old for that first big trip to Seattle Children’s Hospital.

Siena Leighton’s blood sugar spiked off the levels that basic medical equipment could read.

Siena had been drinking more water than seemed normal, among other problems. Something was wrong.

Her mother, Brenda Leighton, looked up Siena’s symptoms online, but the family didn’t know for sure until she was diagnosed in Seattle.

“You don’t really think it’s going to happen to you,” Brenda Leighton said.

Siena, now 11, is living with Type 1 diabetes, what used to be called juvenile-onset diabetes.

This year, she is the Arlington Police Department’s “Chief For A Day.” For the event, police departments sponsor a local child who has a chronic disease or terminal illness. They take the kids for a day of fun at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission in Burien.

Siena wants to use the opportunity to get the word out about Type 1 diabetes.

“A lot of people don’t understand it really well, so I want people to know what it really is about,” she said. “I get a lot of, ‘What’s the pump on your side?’ and ‘Can you eat this?’”

Most people, she said, “think they have a picture of it, but it’s not fully painted.”

In Siena’s words, “It’s a disease where your white blood cells get kind of sick or something goes wrong, so it thinks it’s attacking a virus, but it’s attacking your pancreas, so it destroys your pancreas, and the sugar can’t go anywhere, and the sugar just keeps going and the liver is just kicking out sugar.”

It’s the second time Arlington police officers have participated in Chief For A Day, detective Lisa Teter said. They asked Cascade Valley Hospital staff to recommend a kid.

For a lot of the children, Chief For A Day is a break from their medical troubles, Teter said.

“It’s really rewarding, and the kids have a ball,” Teter said. “They just really have a great time.”

Siena also will get to ride with Police Chief Nelson Beazley in the city’s annual Fourth of July Parade. She’s a little nervous, but also grateful.

Living with diabetes

Siena has to test her blood 10 times a day by pricking her finger. She must leave some classes early to conduct the tests. She checks before lunch, before gym class and before she gets on the bus.

She’s known most of her classmates at Post Middle School since kindergarten.

“My friends adapt to it, and they don’t really ask a lot of questions,” she said. “They say, ‘It’s just you.’ They don’t really care that it’s that. Well, they care, but it’s not a big deal.”

Siena always keeps her bag of diabetic supplies with her at school. It was embarrassing at first, but not so much anymore. The bag holds medical equipment, Starburst, Skittles, glucose tabs and a tube of vanilla frosting.

Sometimes, when it’s quiet in class, Siena’s insulin pump can be heard aloud when it beeps.

She recognizes that same beep when she hears other people’s insulin pumps go off in church or at the store, she said. That beep is a part of her life. It works as a sort of an alarm, notifying her when the pump battery is running low, if the insulin supply is low or when it finishes administering a dose.

Siena’s diet isn’t limited, as long as she’s careful, but she tries to eat well to keep things balanced, she said.

“We joke that she can eat anything except for poison,” Brenda Leighton said.

Siena’s twin sister, Bella, who doesn’t have diabetes, looks exactly like her. Together they participate in choir, piano, volleyball and youth group.

Siena’s favorite classes are social studies and gym. She wants to work in the medical field, maybe as a doctor who delivers babies. She’d especially like to work with infants who are born premature or who have birth defects.

Her mother, Brenda, is a preschool teacher and a speech and language pathologist. Her dad, Todd, is an engineer working in aerospace. They named Siena after a town in Italy they visited before she was born.

Siena’s pump has been yanked out accidentally before. It’s gotten caught on the stove or a seat belt. Once, her 8-year-old brother Isaac was pretending to be an airplane on the stairs, his arms spread wide, and he accidentally snagged it.

“It feels like you put on two Band-Aids and then ripped them off,” she said.

Playing Legos with Isaac is one of Siena’s favorite pastimes, along with reading and her “Rainbow Loom” crafting kit. She’s used the small rubber bands in the kit to fashion bracelets, a unicorn, a rattlesnake and a butterfly.

“I tried to make an elephant but I gave up,” she said.

While Siena sat on her living room couch talking about her disease, she snuggled the family’s protective golden retriever, Honey. At one point, Siena and her mom heard a loud crash downstairs. Isaac walked by to grab the broom from the closet.

“Nothing broke!” he called, warding off questions.

Little brothers.

Constant vigilance

The adults who know Siena describe her as kind, caring and mature.

“At school she displays a tenacity in her work and a gentle side when cooperating with her peers,” said her school principal, Voni Walker.

“She just had to grow up really fast because she had to care for herself,” said her mother.

Siena knows what it’s like when something’s wrong with her body. She’ll lose concentration and focus.

“I just feel like I’m really tired, like you’re sick feeling and you just don’t want to do anything or I get really hungry or really shaky,” she said.

The family keeps extra medical supplies on hand in case of an emergency. One time, when her pump failed, blood sugar reading, which normally should be in the range of 95 to 110, spiked to more than 400.

She was at a friend’s house when it started.

“I threw up so many times my throat got burnt,” she said.

Siena’s mom used injections to bring her blood sugar back down. She couldn’t sleep that night, waiting to feel normal again. They figured it out, but if it happens again, they’re going to the hospital.

“I was up drinking fluids like every four minutes,” Siena said. “It was rather unpleasant, but we learned something.”

Chief for a day

Arlington police plan several fundraisers for Chief For A Day at the Buffalo Wild Wings location at Smokey Point. The business will donate 10 percent from pre-tax food sales on March 19, April 9, May 14 and June 11.

“We’re just super excited, and really, really grateful that she was chosen,” Brenda Leighton said.

Between 3 percent and 4 percent of high-schoolers in Snohomish County have a diagnosis of diabetes, according to the Snohomish Health District. The number is just under 7 percent for adults.

Nationally, as many as 3 million people have Type 1 diabetes, about 11 percent of all diabetes cases, according to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

Young people with diabetes can thrive in environments with healthy food options and safe physical activity, said Dr. Gary Goldbaum, the county health officer.

Important factors include medicine, diet, exercise and community support, he said.

Meanwhile, Siena encourages people to donate to diabetes camps for kids, such as Camp Leo near Enumclaw. There’s also the annual “Beat The Bridge” fundraiser walk in Seattle in May.

Identifying Siena’s disease early in her life helped her stay healthy. She and her mother want people to understand the symptoms of Type 1 diabetes, so they recognize them in young children, they said.

They don’t want people with diabetes to feel isolated or alone.

“Other people can make a difference and help this,” Siena said. “There’s a lot more to diabetes than people talk about. Explaining it to people is important.”

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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