If you happen to spy Coquitlam Express forward Mateo Dixon checking his phone on the players bench during a game, he’s not calling his family back in Toronto about his latest goal, or texting his buddies.
He’s checking the level of his blood sugars.
Dixon has Type 1 diabetes.
Diagnosed when he was 13 years old, Dixon says he hasn’t let the autoimmune disease hold him back from attaining his athletic goals.
In fact, having Type 1 may have even accelerated his development as a hockey player.
Now 20 and in his final season of junior hockey, Dixon is having a career year, scoring 45 points in 49 games.
Not that his journey through the sport has been easy.
When your pancreas is working as it should, you don’t think about it.
The elongated gland that sits in your upper abdomen tucked behind your stomach magically produces the enzymes that help you digest food and the hormones that keep the amount of sugars in your blood on an even keel.
But when your pancreas suddenly stops functioning, you can’t not think about it.
While the days of restrictive diets for people living with diabetes are long gone, every time Dixon eats or reaches for a bottle of energy drink after a shift on the ice, he has to make a mental calculation about the amount of carbohydrates he’s ingesting.
He also has to check his blood sugar levels with an app on his phone that’s connected to a sensor plugged into his body, then determine the dose of insulin a small pump he wears 24/7 injects into his body to offset that sugar boost.
It’s not always an exact science.
Exercise, stress, anxiety and excitement can throw even the most precise calculation out of whack.
Overshoot your insulin dose and your blood sugars can drop, sapping you of energy, depleting your ability to focus or make quick decisions.
Underestimate, and your soaring blood sugars can make you nauseous and tired, and bring on a pounding headache.
Neither outcome is ideal for a high-performance athlete who has to be at the top of his game and ready at any moment to jump on the ice.
Dixon said his disease has brought on no shortage of aggravations.
“It can be so random” he said. “So many micro things can affect it.”
In tune with his body
But, Dixon added, living with Type 1 has also put him more in tune with his body.
He said he’s hyper-aware of everything he eats and drinks and the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle to better manage his blood sugars.
His off-ice training regimen doesn’t just get him ready for the rigours of the hockey season, it also helps smooth out the effects of the highs and lows he’ll inevitably endure.
Express coach Patrick Sexton said Dixon’s maturity is beyond his years.
“He has a sense of responsibility,” he said. “He knows exactly how he’s feeling and how to address the situation.”
Sexton said he’s played with teammates who have Type 1, like Luke Kunin who’s now a defenceman for the NHL’s San Jose Sharks.
But this is his first experience coaching a young athlete with the disease.
He said it’s important to maintain open lines of communication so he can understand why Dixon might not be able to immediately take a shift because he’s dealing with a low, or why he’s looking at his phone and wolfing down a candy bar on the bench instead of manning the power play on the ice.
“My job is to support him,” Sexton said.
Dixon said one of biggest challenges of diabetes is its invisibility.
The advent of technology, like the small insulin pump that plugs directly into his abdomen or thigh and the digital glucose monitor that connects by Bluetooth to his smartphone, has eliminated the very public displays of pricking his finger to draw a drop of blood to dab on a test strip plugged into a handheld meter or injecting a dose of insulin with a hypodermic needle.
That can make it hard for his teammates and coaches to immediately recognize why he might be a little off his game, or why he has to cut short a workout.
So, he takes care to bring them into his world as best he can to build an understanding of his disease and the challenges it can present.
“I look at it as a growth opportunity,” Dixon said of living and competing with Type 1. “It’s not limiting at all. It can literally be the opposite.”
Diabetes awareness game March 24
The Coquitlam Express has teamed up with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) to host the team’s first diabetes awareness game on March 24, versus the Cowichan Valley Capitals. With the support of sponsor Sussex Insurance, players will wear specially designed jerseys that will be auctioned off after the game to raise money for JDRF and Diabetes Canada as well as other activities before and during the game to help raise awareness about the disease.