Gwen Schroeder

Emerson Elementary fifth-grader Gwen Schroeder checks her blood glucose levels in the health office at Emerson Elementary School. She works with the school nursing staff each day to make sure she is managing her levels well.  Schroeder will serve as an ambassador for the Junior Diabetes Research Foundation’s Walk to Cure Diabetes on Oct. 6

Rory O'Driscoll/La Crosse Tribune

Gwen Schroeder won’t be defined by diabetes. Diagnosed at age 4 with Type 1, Gwen monitors her blood glucose levels with the ease of an old pro. The 10-year-old swings by the health office at Emerson Elementary School a few times each day to poke her finger and otherwise tracks her well-being on a pager-like insulin pump.

“You always have to have it on you,” Gwen said.

Behind Gwen’s independence is a carefully planned support network of family, friends, teachers and health professionals. They help her stay healthy as she focuses on school work and activities, and the other daily responsibilities in the life of a typical fifth-grader.

Gwen’s mother, Kathy Errthum, sat down with Emerson staff for the first time when her daughter started school. Things are easier now, but Errthum took extra care going into Gwen’s first day of kindergarten, even bringing in a dietitian to meet with school staff.

“It was a big team effort,” Errthum said. “The school has been fantastic.”

Gwen isn’t alone. That same team effort is the cornerstone of treatment for all diabetic students when their daily care is entrusted to school staff. Kim Mahlum, school nurse for both Emerson and Central High School, regularly talks with parents and health care providers.

It falls to her office to support students as they balance regular blood checks, diet planning and insulin shots with class work. Not everyone is as comfortable as Gwen, Mahlum said.

Care is ongoing and can vary from student to student. Students come in a few times a day. Some need insulin shots. Some, like Gwen, use insulin pumps.

If any students’ blood sugar is low, Mahlum’s office has a cache of treatments. An apple works, but there also are glucose tablets and a gel on hand if the student is too low to swallow.

Teachers are responsible for keeping an eye on students so they don’t get too low.

Julie Hatfield had Gwen in her fourth-grade class last year, but she also cared for her when she was in preschool.

Hatfield set her watch alarm to 2:30 p.m. to make sure Gwen made it to the office on time. Gwen’s classmates also played a vital role, helping her to the office if she was too low on sugar, Hatfield said.

“Her friends are very helpful and encouraging,” Hatfield said.

Errthum remembers when her daughter was diagnosed. Gwen was really thirsty and urinating often, when Errthum brought her in for her regular checkup.

At first, Errthum thought it might be a bladder infection.

“Of course, it wasn’t that,” Errthum said.

Gwen did the best she could. Errthum sprung for an insulin pump because she wanted the best option for her daughter. They trained the family dog, Lola, to smell Gwen’s blood sugar levels and react if it gets too low.

Over the years, Gwen grew more independent.

“That whole poor me, poor Gwen feeling,” Errthum said. “Eventually that turns around.”

Now, Gwen is a positive force for other children coping with the disease. She will serve as an ambassador for the Junior Diabetes Research Foundation’s Walk to Cure Diabetes on Oct. 6 at Myrick Park. She also attended a camp this summer offered by the American Diabetes Association.

“She’s just a kid like any other kid but works really hard at trying to stay healthy,” Errthum said. “Because she knows she needs to.”


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