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Expert diabetes care in Maple Grove helps 9-year-old Riley stay focused on his dreams

After Riley Kunkel’s type 1 diabetes diagnosis, his team at the University of Minnesota Health Maple Grove Pediatric Specialty Clinic formed a close partnership with the Kunkel family to help manage the disease.
9-year-old Riley Kunkel was first diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2012. After four years of care through University of Minnesota Health, Riley’s diagnosis doesn’t hold him back one bit.

Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations. We celebrate milestones all the time. But would you celebrate the day you received a life-changing diagnosis? If you ask our pediatric diabetes team at University of Minnesota Health Maple Grove Pediatric Specialty Clinic, the answer is: “You bet.”

Riley Kunkel, 9, recently left at check-up with a special gift from the pediatric diabetes team. The gift was given in celebration of his “Diaversary”—which marks the day Riley was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

“It is a scary, overwhelming diagnosis to receive,” said Pediatric Endocrinologist Melena Bellin, MD, who is one member of Riley’s care team. “Celebrating Riley’s Diaversary gives us a chance to honor all the hard work Riley and his parents have done to understand and manage his disease.”

Scary days

Riley was first diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2012. His parents noticed he was going to the bathroom more frequently, was always thirsty and had started wetting the bed. During a visit with Riley’s primary care doctor, Riley’s parents learned his blood sugar levels were above 400. The normal range is 70-130.

“My husband is a paramedic, and  I am an EMT.  We both knew deep down what it was without having to be told,” Riley’s mom, Amaya Kunkel, recalled. “I broke down crying. How could this happen to my baby?”

Their doctor told them to get Riley to a hospital right away. The Kunkels chose University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. There, emergency staff brought down Riley’s sugar levels and admitted him into the pediatric endocrine program right away.

“We met with a lot of people that day and the next couple weeks after,” Amaya Kunkel said. “Eventually, we were able to make Riley’s appointments in Maple Grove, which is a lot closer to our home. This is where we met Dr. Bellin. She and her staff have been great to partner with these past four years.”

Learn more about University of Minnesota Health pediatric diabetes care and services.

Teamwork and education equal success

At Maple Grove, Riley is able to access a full team of pediatric diabetes specialists. In addition to Dr. Bellin, his care team includes Heather Lage, RN, CDE, a pediatric diabetes educator and dietitian, and child-life specialists.  

Heather often meets with his parents first, while Riley spends time with a child-life specialist. This gives Riley’s parents time to learn how to manage his disease and ask questions.

“Given our medical backgrounds, we see people with diabetic issues all the time. But in the beginning, it felt like all our medical knowledge just went out the window because this was our own child,” Kunkel said.” 

“Young children can’t always grasp what a diabetes diagnosis means,” said Lauren Arnoldussen, a child-life specialist. “We given them a lot of tools to help them understand how to take care of themselves. We use medical play to help normalize their clinic visit to make them comfortable with their new daily norm. We also make sure to celebrate when things go well.”

Growing up well

After four years of care, Riley’s diagnosis doesn’t hold him back one bit. He’s a caring, energetic boy who plays hockey and baseball. He wants to be a firefighter and paramedic when he grows up—just like his dad.

“His diabetes has been under control thanks to Dr. Bellin and her team. Heather has been awesome. If we are seeing consistent high glucose levels with Riley, we simply e-mail her and she tells us what to adjust with his insulin pump. And since we can download his pump info online, the clinic staff can see what we have been seeing and adjust his pump settings that way,” Kunkel said.   

 “It’s hard to name everyone, but we are glad that Riley is in great hands,” she added.

Happy Diaversery, Riley!