Eighteen-year-old Ryleigh Sallinger always has to interrupt her life to deal with type 1 diabetes.
A monitor on her body issues blood glucose alarms up to 20 times a day, and it often cues Ryleigh to check her blood sugar. When her blood sugar is too low, she feels shaky and has to eat or drink something sugary to feel better. When her blood sugar is too high, she uses a device, called an insulin pump, to deliver the hormone insulin into her bloodstream.
Ryleigh was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was 1 year old. It is a genetic disorder that her father, Mitch, also lives with.
Over the years, Ryleigh’s parents, Becky and Mitch, have helped her manage diabetes through diet and with insulin. More recently, they’ve concentrated on Ryleigh’s diet even more, hoping it also helps manage rheumatoid arthritis, a second autoimmune disorder with which Ryleigh has been diagnosed. The teenager follows a stricter diet than most kids her age, monitoring carbohydrates and limiting sweets. Still, her continuous blood glucose alarm beeps 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Ryleigh has never enjoyed an uninterrupted night of sleep.
Her parents worry about the long-term effect of the chronic disease as well as more immediate consequences. Because of complications that can occur in diabetes, Ryleigh is at a higher risk of losing her eyesight, or of a limb needing to be amputated later in life. She can also get sicker than their other children when she comes down with the flu or viruses, because dehydration and immune responses to common illnesses can wreak havoc on Ryleigh’s blood sugar levels.
The Sallingers, who live in Lincoln, Neb., are grateful for tools, like alarms and insulin pumps, and all they have learned about healthy eating. But Ryleigh and her family dream of a cure.
Finding Mass General
In 2018, the Sallinger family began hosting a T-shirt fundraiser to support type 1 diabetes research at the Denise Faustman, MD, PhD, Immunobiology Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital. The Sallingers had never met Dr. Faustman, but were inspired by her research seeking a cure for type 1 diabetes. Through the years, their annual fundraiser has raised more than $45,000 for Dr. Faustman’s work.
Dr. Faustman and her team have identified a key family of immune cells responsible for regulating the immune response in type 1 diabetes. This has led to the discovery of new antibodies to correct this mis-regulation, as well as a drug-screening initiative to find existing and affordable therapies.
“It would be earth-shattering, for me, even if treatments could help my pancreas produce some insulin on its own,” Ryleigh explains. As a high school senior, she is busy with school and part-time jobs and it can be hard to stop and manage her blood sugar.
Becky says even as Ryleigh is pondering college and careers, she is aware of her medical needs and knows she must find a job with good insurance benefits to help cover the expense of insulin.
Each year, Becky creates a slogan for a T-shirt and solicits local businesses to place ads on the shirts. When someone donates to Team Sallinger, they get a shirt. This year’s slogan is: Years of Insulin: 100. Team Sallinger 2021. It’s Time for a Cure. They publicize Team Sallinger on their Facebook page and created a Mass General BeCause webpage. In October, Becky’s grandfather hosted an outdoor food truck event for their friends, family and coworkers who donate.
“We have such a supportive team. Those shirts just get worn out; I see them all over. It’s good advertising for local businesses, too,” says Becky. “The fundraiser is a super fun thing we do every fall; it gives our family a boost.”
Ryleigh says she is thankful. “It’s nice to know there are people who have the same mindset as us and want to cure diabetes,” she says.
"It would be earth-shattering, for me, even if treatments could help my pancreas produce some insulin on its own."