KEARNEY — Kameran Ulferts, a busy senior majoring in art education at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, will never forget Nov. 29, 2009. She was wearing a striped sweater and had curled her hair that morning.
Because Ulferts, then 12, was drinking an excessive amount of water and using the bathroom frequently, her mother assumed she had a urinary tract infection. She took her daughter to a clinic for treatment.
Ulferts remembers the nurse pricking her finger. Her blood sugar result was 396, far above normal. Ulferts was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Her mother was told to rush her to Children’s Hospital in Omaha. “We were instructed to stop on the way only for water for me to drink,” Ulferts said. “I remember that day and the following three days in the hospital like it was yesterday, but for some reason, it’s hard for me to remember a life without Type 1 diabetes.”
Since that day, the 2014 graduate of Fullerton High School has learned how to live with her diabetes. Less than a year later, her only sibling, a younger brother who was then 10, was also diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. “For my family, Type 1 diabetes became our way of life, but not necessarily a way of life that other people on the outside understood,” she said.
Ulferts hasn’t let the diagnosis slow her down. In May, she will graduate from UNK with a degree in art education. She is a member of Gamma Phi Beta and the student chapter of the National Art Education Association. She is a guest advocate at the Crossroads Center Rescue Mission.
She is a teaching artist at Corky Creations and teaches home-schooled art lessons once a week. For the past three summers, she has worked as a counselor at Camp Floyd Rogers in Gretna, a camp for diabetic children.
Through it all, she advocates for a cure for diabetes with the Heartland Chapter of JDRF International, one of the 22 Community Health Charities of Nebraska member charities. JDRF is the official name of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
“Whether in school, work or some other situation in the public eye, there have always been people who just aren’t educated and don’t understand. Through these challenging experiences, our parents have taught us and motivated us to chase our dreams and look for the positives in every situation. From the beginning, they never let us use diabetes as an excuse,” she said.
College life required adjustments from the beginning, she said. “The first year can be difficult in general for everyone, but Type I diabetes presents new and old challenges daily, 24/7. Being open about my illness was the first step toward independence for me.”
She educated new friends, instructors, professors, bosses and co-workers about her Type I diabetes so she could confidently pursue all aspects of college life, from classes to extracurricular activities. “I felt comfortable enough to be honest about my condition so that when, for example, I need a juice box to quickly correct a low blood sugar, I could have it.”
On one level, diabetes is a numbers game. Kameran pricks her finger eight times a day to keep track of her blood glucose levels. She counts the carbohydrates she eats. She keeps track of her A1C number with a hemoglobin test.
“It’s easy to get obsessed with watching these numbers and get upset when they aren’t in range and aren’t ‘perfect.’ It is important to celebrate small victories,” she said.
Ulferts takes issue with those who refer to diabetes as a “battle” because “diabetes isn’t something that can be won or defeated (yet). There will always be bad numbers and good numbers. Instead of negatively focusing on the bad numbers, I try to do what I can to stay away from opportunities for those bad numbers to arise. I try not to eat high carbohydrate meals, and I try to make sure I exercise five times a week,” she said.
Shortly after her diagnosis, her family became involved with JDRF. JDRF sent her a Bag of Hope, which contained information, books, toys, a teddy bear and more to help her cope and better understand her diagnosis.
During the years, her mother has used JDRF resources through Children’s Hospital to help her children navigate the challenges of diabetes. Ulferts and her brother attended JDRF conferences and classes. When Ulferts left for college, she sought out more JDRF events and services.
In recent years, she has attended two JDRF One Walks and collectively raised more than $3,000 for JDRF research. Last year, she served on a panel of college students who spoke at a JDRF Type One Summit event. She plans to attend the next such event in November.
“I learned so much about new diabetes research as well as different ways to manage my fitness life with diabetes,” she said. “I also keep up with JDRF to see how upcoming health care policies could change regarding pre-existing conditions. JDRF is extremely proactive in the political realm. They keep me updated on how I can become involved by voicing my opinion.”
With another UNK student, Hannah Nordhausen, Ulferts co-founded The College Diabetes Network in late 2016. She now is its acting vice president. “We saw a need for education and community on our campus. Since then, we have connected with roughly 12-14 students who have been affected by T1D,” she said.
CDN will host a JDRF One Walk in Kearney on April 22, with the assistance of the Lincoln and Greater Nebraska chapter of JDRF.
CDN provides peer connections and expert resources to manage successfully the challenging transition to independence at college and beyond. “I am a firm believer in the power of T1D community, not just for people with Type 1 diabetes but for all who are affected by it. It has become a hub of resources, support, and understanding for this underserved population.”
Through CDN, “Seeing so many individuals of all ages thriving with T1D has inspired me to work harder and to be better with my own diabetes care and for those who care about me,” she said.
Meanwhile, the creative Ulferts hopes to “make an impact on the world” by becoming a K-12 art teacher. Influenced by teachers and her parents, she also said that two art education professors, Dr. William Cavill and Christy Kosmicki, “lit a fire within my heart for art education.”
Ulferts has both very good days and very bad days with her diabetes. “In my lifetime, I might never be free of daily pokes and shots. I might never be cured. But thanks to JDRF, there is hope,” she said. “Thanks to the fundraising, research and advocacy efforts of JDRF I have a better life where life-saving diabetes technology, education and care is available and affordable. That makes living with Type 1 diabetes possible and manageable.”
She added, “I try to remind myself that there is far more to me than the number on the blood glucose meter. At the end of the day, diabetes doesn’t have me. I have diabetes.”