For Sherry Thomas, a message she received on her cell phone last month will remain imprinted on her brain forever. "Mom, help me," a tiny voice said.
That voicemail sent Thomas running from a doctor's appointment downtown and dialing 911. Her diabetic daughter, Heather FitzGeorge, 14, had passed out at home after being unable to get her body's sugar level down.
"Can you imagine what could have happened if I didn't have my cell phone, or didn't get the message and call for help?" Thomas said. "Heather barely had blood pressure when the paramedics arrived."
Although Heather, who was diagnosed with diabetes in 1999, has her own glucose monitor and tests her blood sugar several times a day, there are still touch-and-go instances.
"Those with diabetes try to keep everything balanced, but it's still not a perfect science," said Mary Hernandez, director of the Billings chapter of the American Diabetes Association. "If you're ill or stressed out or exercise more or less than usual - all of those things can factor in."
Hernandez added that diabetes has truly become an epidemic. According to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control, of children born in the year 2000, two out of every three males and one out of every two females will develop diabetes at some point during their lifetime.
"People also think only children are diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, but actually more than half diagnosed with it are adults," Hernandez said. "And we're seeing a big increase in Type 2 diabetes among kids."
In Montana, there's an estimated 550 school-age kids dealing with Type 1 diabetes, Hernandez said.
Like most parents, Thomas has not taken her daughter's diagnosis lightly. A regular in the state beauty pageant circuit - she currently holds the title of Mrs. Yellowstone County and was named Mrs. Montana Intercontinental in 2004 - Thomas has used her status to raise awareness about the disease.
"I want to meet some of our lawmakers and talk about early detection of diabetes in our schools," she said. "We need training time for school nurses and teachers. There needs to be some changes."
Thomas and her husband, Joe, a local dentist, recently made some changes for the better by raising money to send kids with diabetes to Montana Youth Retreat, a summer camp throught the American Diabetes Association.
"Last November, we did a 'Turkeys for Teeth' promo to get Christmas turkeys for the food bank, and we've done phone cards for soldiers and the response was good," Thomas said. "So we decided to advertise a $50 teeth whitening with the patients donating another $50 to the Diabetes Association."
By the end of the 2 1/2-month promotion, the Thomas Smile Designs dental office gave $1,250 for camp scholarships. Thomas added that anyone can still make donations through her husband's dental office to the American Diabetes Association by calling 256-5165.
Thomas was surprised to hear that of the 79 kids scheduled for this year's retreat from Thursday to Sunday, 32 of them are going on a scholarship. The money comes in from various local foundations, individuals, Lion's Clubs and the Breakfast Exchange Club. The local American Diabetes office, like others around the United States, receives thousands of dollars worth of medical supplies and other materials from pharmaceutical companies for the campers.
Hernandez said parents typically pay $350 to send their kids to the Camp On The Boulder near Big Timber, but no child is ever turned away due to lack of financing. And each year, more kids ages 8-17 with diabetes are taking the opportunity to experience the specialty camp with their peers. Last summer's number of 60 campers has obviously evolved.
"A lot of kids come from rural areas where they don't know other kids who have diabetes," Hernandez said. "These campers meet and stay in touch throughout the year."
This year's retreat will be staffed by 30 volunteers including doctors, registered nurses and dietitians. Hernandez describes the event as a life-changing experience for both volunteers and young campers.
As well as traditional camp activities, the Montana Youth Retreat participants leave with a new understanding of the effects of exercise, nutrition and medication on blood sugar and how to balance all three. They also discover how to improve self-care and manage their diabetes in a variety of settings.
For many children, Hernandez said, the retreat could be the first night away from home since their diabetes diagnosis.
"When kids are newly diagnosed, parents will go through a state of being totally overwhelmed," Hernandez said. "It takes a long time for both the parents and the kids to master treating the diabetes.
"It's a family disease, and it's very high maintenance."
For more information about Montana Youth Retreat, the American Diabetes Association summer camp, call the Billings office at 256-0616.