Kelsey Kaelin, 9, woke up Sunday morning Aug. 11, 2002, feeling extremely lethargic and nauseous. During the summer of 2002, she had often felt tired, was always thirsty and constantly had to urinate. While looking back at pictures, Susan Kaelin, Kelsey’s mother, also noticed how thin she had become. Around 10 a.m., Kaelin vomited. That was the final straw. Her parents, Susan and Greg Kaelin, decided to drive her to the hospital.
“If you set her down, then she just went down on the ground,” Susan Kaelin said. “We had to pick her up and carry her to the car. She couldn’t walk.”
The Kaelins were in Buckley, Wash. to attend a family reunion. Her parents had intended to take her home that day to see a doctor Monday in their hometown of Tigard, Ore. Buckley is a small town with a little more than 4,000 people. The nearest hospital was 25 miles away in Tacoma.
“Her grandma lives out in the country,” Susan Kaelin said. “That’s why we jumped in the car and tried to drive to a hospital because at the time we didn’t think we could wait for 911. And then we made that decision to drive, but then we didn’t make it.”
On the way to Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital, Susan Kaelin held her limp unresponsive daughter in her arms and watched her green eyes continually roll to the back of her head.
During the dash to the hospital, Kaelin grew worse. Fortunately, eight miles away from Buckley they approached the town of Bonney Lake where they found a fire department.
“Should I pull into the fire department?” Greg Kaelin said.
“Yeah, she’s not going to make it,” Susan Kaelin said.
Time was working against her. Susan Kaelin made a frantic promise. . . over and over. Each syllable was uttered with terror and urgency. There was no response. The whites of Kaelin’s eyes became more prominent as her green irises only slipped further back into her head. She repeated the promise again and again as a desperate plea to prevent her daughter from going anywhere.
The fire department brought out its ambulance and grabbed Kaelin out of her mother’s arms to put her into their vehicle. Before their journey to Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital the paramedics performed tests on Kaelin and worked on her for about half an hour to get her stable. They gave her oxygen, put an IV in her and checked her blood sugar levels.
“They took her blood pressure, and she didn’t have one so that freaked me out,” Susan Kaelin said.
Love & Basketball
Kaelin’s first love was basketball. She started dribbling a ball when she was two years old. She didn’t watch cartoons. She watched girl’s basketball.
At Tigard High School she earned four varsity letters in basketball and softball, led the basketball team to two state championships, and she was recruited to play for several Division I schools for both softball and basketball.
“She had a great pull-up 15 foot jumper, and she could dribble the ball, use her left hand and right hand,” said Steve Naylor, her coach.
At point guard she averaged 12.7 points per game, 5.2 assists per game and 4.5 steals per game, and she was named team captain in her senior season at Tigard.
A Parents’ Worst Nightmare
The paramedics were working on Kaelin, while her parents were being questioned. The questions were coming at Susan and Greg in rapid fire:
“What were her symptoms?”
“How long had she been sick?”
Fear consumed Kaelin’s parents who were brought back to 14 years ago when their nephew, Neil Peloli, got sick during the same family weekend when he was 9 years old. He was diagnosed with cancer and only had a few months left to live. He died Dec. 30, 1988.
“We didn’t think God could do it twice,” Susan Kaelin said.
Naylor said he was not worried because he previously had a player with a similar condition.
Naylor recalled a time where Tigard was at Forest Grove.
“Literally when they were announcing the starting line-up Kelsey was eating Skittles and drinking Gatorade,” he said.
Other times, Kaelin would often turn to juice boxes, which earned her the nickname “Juice Box.”
There she went to sit out on the sidelines with a juice box in hand. Naylor thought she looked like a 9 year old with those juice boxes. One day, someone started calling her “Juice Box,” and the nickname stuck during her Tigard basketball days.
However, sometimes when Kaelin was about to compete in a big game, adrenaline would kick in and throw her numbers all off.
Keep Holding On
Desperate to keep her daughter holding on she promised her something Kaelin had greatly desired: a dog. Susan Kaelin rode with Kaelin in the ambulance to the hospital, while her father followed in their car. Once at the hospital, Kaelin immediately fell asleep.
“All I know is that they hooked me up to an IV, and I was gone,” Kaelin said.
She was in the hospital for four days. The hospital even had a bed made right next to Kaelin’s for her parents. They stayed by her side the entire time.
Kaelin slept through her first day there, but on the second day, the verdict was in.
“I found out that I had Type 1 Diabetes and that I’m going to have to be taking shots every time I eat,” Kaelin said.
One of the nights in the hospital, Susan Kaelin recalled crawling into bed with Kaelin. She began to cry, and she said I don’t want diabetes.
“It broke my heart. I just held her and said I know and was sorry,” Susan Kaelin said.
Type 1 Diabetes On the Court
Aimee Brock, a registered dietitian at the University of Nevada’s Wellness and Weight Management Clinic, said Type 1 Diabetes is a chronic condition that is a result of an autoimmune destruction of the beta cells of the pancreas, which then prevents insulin from being produced. Insulin is a hormone that the body needs in order for sugar (glucose) to enter the cell and provide energy for daily life.
Her coaches and teammates at Tigard High School were aware that Kaelin was diabetic. However, Jane Albright, Nevada Women’s Basketball head coach, admitted she did not know that Kaelin had Type 1 Diabetes until after she was already signed. Albright said that it would not have affected the decision to make Kaelin a part of the Pack.
“I was surprised because I had another coach tell me,” Albright said. “It wasn’t even Kelsey’s family that told me.”
Yet, when Kaelin came on her visit to Nevada she filled out a medical sheet where she listed that she had Type 1 Diabetes. Other than that, the topic never came up in conversation.
“It wasn’t a death illness,” Kaelin said.
It’s not a death illness if you know you have it.
Susan Kaelin explained that on the ride to the hospital in August 2002, she had a feeling that Kaelin had Type 1 Diabetes. She didn’t know much about Type 1, but she did know that it would cause extreme thirst and frequent urination. During the summer of 2002, she said Kaelin would drink a lot of fluids, and she would hear her getting up throughout the night to go to the bathroom.
Athletes with Type 1 Diabetes have no limitations, but they are presented with more roadblocks that they must overcome. Kaelin has to sit out of practice at times to get her blood sugar back to normal, and then she has to work harder to catch up with the team when she rejoins the practice.
She usually experiences low blood sugar levels, hypoglycemia, at the beginning of a practice, and her coaches can tell when her blood sugar is not normal by her performance.
“I can tell that she gets slower or maybe her attention isn’t on basketball the way it normally is,” said Jacie Capra, Kaelin’s position coach at Nevada. “She appears to be a little weaker. When I have seen her when her blood levels are high or low you can definitely tell the difference, but she does a good job of not letting that happen very often.”
In fact, Kaelin said that she only sat out three practices this past season for 20 minutes.
Capra went on to explain that if Kaelin is doing back-to-back drills it takes her longer to recover than everybody else if she is low. Yet, when her blood sugar levels are normal she is perfectly able to keep up, and she is a lot louder as well.
Another aspect of athletics that can be more of a challenge for Type 1 Diabetics is gaining muscle, which does not mean that they cannot do it. It will just take more effort.
“The body is a very fine-tuned machine and whenever you alter that machine by trying to replace a hormone, that isn’t being naturally made or regulated by the body, it will be more difficult for weight control,” Brock said.
Yet, Albright, Capra and Naylor all agree that they would not have guessed that she had Type 1 Diabetes if no one told them.
“The best thing about Kelsey is that she doesn’t let it impede or hinder her attitude or perspective on how good she can be,” Capra said. “That’s one of my favorite things about her. She’s a fighter. She’s played through it for a long time, and it’s never been an excuse for her.”
Last season Kaelin tore her ACL and used a medical redshirt. This year as a sophomore she returned and contributed as Nevada’s back-up point guard.
“It wasn’t cancer, and we saw what that can do to somebody,” Susan Kaelin said. “It’s always been these are the cards you’re dealt, deal with it and go on. And being an athlete comes so naturally to her. It’s like breathing for her. It was never ‘this is too hard’ or anything like that.”
Kaelin uses an Accu-chek meter to test her blood sugar levels and a Humalog Pen to give herself a shot of insulin. When she was younger she said that she felt embarrassed to test in front of other kids because she didn’t know what they would think. As she grew older she transitioned out of this thinking, and by the time she was a sophomore in high school she had fully accepted it.
Going to basketball camps that were specifically for diabetics hosted by the Chris Dudley Foundation helped with her steps to acceptance. She was surrounded by kids just like her, and she got to meet Chris Dudley who didn’t let Type 1 stop him from competing in the National Basketball Association. He stressed to the campers “Test, not guess.”
“I got to see different kids that are doing the same thing I am,” Kaelin said. “We were all active. It didn’t stop us. It was cool to see other people doing the same thing I am. I’m not just alone in everything.”
When Kaelin does begin to feel out of it her body becomes shaky. It’s as if she is floating in the clouds, and the world is spinning around her. She pricks her finger and the Accu-chek tells her she is low. To get her blood sugar levels back up she drinks juice, Gatorade or sometimes takes a glucose tablet.
Hunger is another symptom Kaelin experiences when she is low. Brock explained there are more severe consequences of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) such as poor coordination, numbness, passing out, nightmares and coma that can result from a lack of proper monitoring and management of blood sugar levels.
When Kaelin’s vision becomes blurry, she’s nauseous and feels incredibly sluggish it means that she is experiencing hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) and must take a shot of insulin.
“Long-term hyperglycemia can lead to kidney failure, neurological issues (including retinopathy and neuropathy), and heart disease,” Brock said. “Acutely low blood sugar is worse, but chronically high blood sugar has more research to show that it is fatal.”
When Kaelin was brought to the hospital in 2002, she was experiencing extremely high levels of hyperglycemia.
Every day Kaelin gives herself a shot of short acting insulin, Humalog, before she eats. She has to count all of the carbs she consumes and give herself the amount of insulin that that equals. It took a great deal of studying to learn the usual amount of carbohydrates in a cup of rice or other items that did not come with the nutrition contents directly on the food.
Every night, Kaelin gives herself a shot of long acting insulin, Lantus. She usually checks her blood sugar levels 5 to 6 times a day, but on game days she also checks it before the game, at halftime and after the game. The most she has ever checked it was 11 times because she was competing in a tournament.
She has to see a doctor every four months to check if she’s been maintaining regular levels and make necessary changes to her insulin.
One of the causes of Type 1 is genetics, and Kaelin’s uncle, Kurt Kaelin, and her grandpa, Jim Wilson, also have the condition.
Most people would think the balancing act of Type 1 Diabetes and being an athlete would be a difficult task, but Kaelin described it as being “pretty easy.” Although being a Type 1 Diabetic resulted in lifestyle changes, it did not determine what she could accomplish.
“Don’t let it hold you back because all you have to do is manage it, and really, you can do whatever you want to do,” Kaelin said.
A promise provides hope. Promise is a word that holds grand meaning and value. It’s a commitment that should be honored and can be seen as legally binding. Susan Kaelin’s hope was that her promise would keep Kaelin fighting. Her hope was that her promise would give Kaelin hope. Her hope was that her promise would help to keep her daughter alive.
“I promise I’ll get you a dog,” Susan Kaelin said.
She knew getting a dog was something she had to do. It was one of the main moments of the whole experience for Susan Kaelin because behind the promise was an internal bargaining within herself. She made this deal. Now it was her turn to follow through.
“My aunts and uncles have dogs so whenever we were around them for the holidays and in their house, Kelsey would then get really itchy, and it would be hard for her to breath,” said Courtney Kaelin, Kaelin’s older sister.
Even though Kaelin was allergic to dogs, Susan was adamant about keeping her word, her promise. She discovered there are hypoallergenic canines such as poodles.
Susan Kaelin figured that the family was now at a place where she could fulfill her promise. They had become more adapted to the lifestyle changes Kaelin had to make, and Oregon’s bitter winter had passed.
In June 2003, Susan and Greg Kaelin drove an hour away from their home to Dallas, Ore. to consider, Coco, a 1-year-old toy poodle who could not be kept by her elderly owner.
After spending an hour with Coco, Susan and Greg Kaelin called their children to tell them they were not going to get the dog. They didn’t get home until around 10 p.m., and Susan Kaelin found her three kids in her and Greg’s room watching TV. Greg Kaelin then entered the room holding Coco.
Kaelin didn’t remember the promise. The only memory she can recall is her eyes rolling in the back of her head. However, Susan Kaelin remembered everything like it was yesterday.
“I had made that promise, regardless of who I made the promise to,” Susan Kaelin said. “I felt an obligation within myself to honor the promise. It’s not like she even knew it, but I knew it. It was just something I said, and I just felt like I need to keep this promise.”
Kelsey Kaelin: Beating the Odds was written in April 2013 for my journalism 107 class with Paul Mitchell.