Battling Type 1 Diabetes, Oak Grove’s Keys trying to beat the odds

By CAMAL PETRO,

Oak Grove three-sport athlete Tyson Keys prefers smooth peanut butter over crunchy. He loves Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, too. The senior eats a lot of peanut butter, but that’s not only because it’s his favorite snack. After all, it’s a good snack for healthy fats and protein, and it also helps Keys maintain his blood sugar levels throughout the day.

Keys was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, or Juvenile Diabetes, when he was 10 years old, and it’s something he deals with, and will deal with, every second of every day. He has to check his blood sugar multiple times a day. It’s tough for an athlete who has Type 1 diabetes because of the blood sugar constant fluctuations throughout the duration of a game, practice or workout.

“This is life-long,” Tyson’s mother, Tasha Keys, said. “It’s not going anywhere. It’ll be with him until he dies because there’s no cure for it. If athletics is what he wants to pursue, he’ll have to accept the challenges of managing them both.”

When Tyson is in the middle of a football game, his blood sugar can drop or rise to dangerous levels. That’s when he turns to peanut butter, Powerade or water.

“Peanut butter has protein and sugar, so the protein maintains the levels and the sugar raises it,” Tyson said. “If I just drank some Powerade or orange juice, it’ll raise it but it’ll come right back down. Even for a normal person, if they just load up on a bunch of sugar, they’ll experience a sugar rush and then they’ll have a bad crash.”

Growing up in Laurel, Tyson was always an active kid. He played football, basketball, baseball and eventually joined the track team in school. One day a coach recognized how lethargic Keys was acting. After running around, Tyson had terrible headaches and was dizzy, which led to his coach telling Tasha, “That’s just not like Tyson.”

“He’s very active, he’s always been active and he’s always played sports since he was about 5,” Tasha said. “We didn’t know anything. I’m a healthcare professional, so I was kind of angry at myself for not noticing the signs, but I just never would have expected it to be what it was.”

Type 1 diabetes is very different from Type 2. Type 1 is an autoimmune condition that is caused by the body attacking its own pancreas with antibodies. A person is completely insulin-dependent for the rest of his or her life. Compared to Type 1, Type 2 is a milder form of diabetes, but it can still lead to major health complications. Usually, a change in diet and exercise can help control Type 2, or even revert it, but there’s nothing that can be done to cure Type 1.

The Keys’ family made a trip to a doctor in Jackson and ended up staying in the hospital for a week. Type 1 diabetes is rare in the African American community, especially rare for a 10-year-old African American, and that’s the first thing Tyson noticed.

“We were there for a week and the first thing (Tyson) asked, and it’s kind of funny, was, ‘Why am I the only one that looks like this in here?’ (The doctor) told him that it was not really common, not to say it doesn’t happen in the African American population, but Type 2 is definitely prominent in the black community, but Type 1 is not really that popular with African Americans,” Tasha said.

What was Tyson’s next question? If he could still be active and play the sports he loves. There aren’t many examples of professional athletes playing with Type 1 diabetes, but former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler is an example. The doctors told the Keys family to not change a thing, and as long as they monitored Tyson closely, he could continue to live the athletic lifestyle he wanted.

But that’s the tricky part. Tyson has to constantly stay on top of his blood sugar levels. Tyson’s pancreas doesn’t produce insulin, the hormone that is released when a person’s blood glucose gets high, which is usually after meals. It helps bring the blood sugar back to normal.

Since Tyson’s pancreas doesn’t function properly, he has to rely on an artificial pancreas to pump in insulin when it’s needed. While his pancreas performs its other functions, it doesn’t maintain the blood sugar. Tyson relies on his pump for doses of insulin throughout the day, but he doesn’t wear it when he’s playing a sport.

“It’s giving me small doses of insulin every minute,” Tyson said. “I wear it all day every day. I’m supposed to wear it for football, but (the pump) costs more than $3,000 so we just don’t have that laying around. If we break it, it’s over with.”

Without the pump or his monitor, Tyson relies on years of experience to help recognize when he needs to take a break. He hates missing time on the field, and he sometimes gets angry or frustrated, but it’s important for him to take control of the situation before his blood sugar rises too high or drops too low.

Just like how Tyson can feel his blood sugar fluctuating, Tasha can notice it from the stands, too.

“He knows when he’s low,” Tasha said. “He can be normal, and his blood sugar can read normally, but he’ll say, ‘Mom, my blood sugar is dropping,’ or the other way around. I know, too, just by being around him, and I just look at him. I can see his movement and say, ‘Son, check your blood sugar.’”

In the regular season matchup with Petal last season, Tyson said that’s the worst he’s ever felt. On a night where he caught three passes for 31 yards and a touchdown, Tyson needed more days than he usually needs to recover.

“I went in at halftime and I checked (my blood sugar), and it was really high,” Tyson said. “I prayed and asked God, ‘Please, I know it’s high. Just let me finish this game without being sick. I’ll pay for it on the way home and the weekend, just please let me finish this game.’ I could tell I was high. It’s a weird feeling.”

He felt the effects from the game, all right. He finished the game, but immediately afterward, he felt awful. He had cramps all weekend and could hardly move.

He’s never missed a game due to his diabetes, though, but he definitely suffers from the fluctuating blood sugar levels during and after games.

For Oak Grove athletic trainer Kevin Mauldin, he’s never dealt with an athlete with Type 1 diabetes, so he had to study up on how to handle Tyson. He wanted to be as educated as possible, and it also helped to have the help of Rusty Hinds, who was an athletic trainer at PCS while Tyson was there.

Mauldin met with Tyson and Tasha in the summer and they made a game plan for when his blood sugar was too high or too low. The Mississippi heat was the hardest factor to control, though.

“That’s when we had the most problems and we’d have to pull him out of practice,” Mauldin said. “He’d say, ‘I’m going down,’ and we’d check (his blood sugar) and his levels would be that low. Scary levels. We’d give him Powerade, and we had a bag that we’d carry everywhere we went called the sugar bag. If his sugar got too low, we had everything in there.”

Mauldin also had Hinds ride the team bus to and from away games as a precaution.

Tyson was really good about knowing when his blood sugar levels would drop or rise, and he’d let Mauldin and Hinds know immediately. The Oak Grove athletic trainers would check it, and sure enough, his levels would be off and he’d have to come out of practice or a game.

Tyson proved to be a legitimate threat as the team’s tight end last season. He led the Warriors’ offense with seven receiving touchdowns, and he caught 18 passes for 282 yards, but his diabetes got in his own way numerous times throughout the season. With the way his levels spiked or dropped, it messed with his balance, his eyesight and even his mood.

“When your sugar level goes up and down, your mood changes, too, and your energy level,” Mauldin said. “Being an athlete, you have those kinds of changes, especially a pretty good athlete that you’re counting on, we tried to get it level and we were trying to get it where we need it to.

“He’d get down, he’d moan, so you can tell there were changes. His energy wouldn’t be there.”

Sometimes, even, Mauldin and Tyson would struggle to get his blood sugar levels normal on a Friday afternoon before a game.

His college recruitment took a hit as well because his Type 1 diabetes turned off some college coaches. It was a trying time, but the opportunity to play for Northwest Community College ended up to be the best landing spot for the Oak Grove product.

“There is actually a coach at Northwest who just found out he is a Type 1 diabetic,” Tyson said.

It’s a junior college, and Mississippi is filled with junior colleges, so it would make more sense for Tyson to stay close to home, right? Tasha would like Tyson to play closer to home, but she recognizes that he’s quickly becoming an adult and he’s capable of managing the disease on his own. Having a coach on the staff who knows what Tyson is going through helps as well.

“I told (the coach) that I was going to hold him accountable if anything happens to my kid,” Tasha said. “It’s one of my biggest fears as a mom, but sometimes Type 1 kids go to college and they die. That’s one of my biggest fears.

“I guess I’ll just have to learn that I have to let him grow up. I have to let him be an adult and a man. It’s part of life. I just have to learn how to deal with it.”

Diabetes is a disease that should be taken seriously. It’s fatal and can affect a person’s life every second of every day. Type 1 diabetes is hard to live with, and it's something everyone should be educated on, even if the disease doesn’t directly affect a person.

Tyson would gladly exchange the “special privileges” he receives, like more frequent trips to the restroom, and the consequences, like slower healing time on a cut, to not have to live with the disease.

“There are a lot of people who really, really don’t (know how serious it is),” Tasha said. “I tell Tyson to just try and educate people, but don’t do it in a demeaning matter. Just take the opportunity to educate them.”