It is hard enough to become a successful Major League pitcher without something else working against you besides talent, experience and the opinion of managers. But Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Dustin McGowan also must cope with diabetes.
Diabetes is a dangerous, long-term disease that can result in loss of eyesight, diminishment of circulation, especially in the extremities like the toes, and ultimately death if the patient does not improve diet and take the proper medication.
Competing as a professional athlete, where the body must be at its peak and fine-tuned, is a challenge that often involves running long distances, lifting weights, and performing repetitive skills that represent the athletic specialty. Doing so while also contending with a chronic health condition just makes that all the more difficult.
McGowan, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound right-handed thrower who was born in Savannah, Georgia, is doing it. This season, his seventh in the majors, he is 5-3 with a 4.27 earned run average in 49 games. Mostly, he appears in relief, but McGown has also started eight times for the Blue Jays, who still harbor hopes of making the American League playoffs as a wild card team.
The real big battle
McGowan has both started and relieved during his big-league career, with a best mark of 12-10 in 2007. Sometimes it has been trickier for him to battle diabetes than it has been to face opposing batters.
It was not until 2004 that McGowan received an initial diagnosis of diabetes. At the time he was recovering from serious elbow surgery and he found he had a constant need to urinate, one of the classic symptoms of diabetes. Doctors first informed him that he had Type 2 diabetes, which is defined as later in life onset of the illness.
However, subsequently, it was determined that McGown had Type 1 diabetes, also called juvenile diabetes. This requires insulin injections and is considered less controllable than Type 2. Many of those afflicted with Type 2 diabetes wear insulin pumps.
Diabetes means that a person has high blood glucose, or blood sugar, and does not process insulin properly after eating. Diet is a tremendous factor in controlling diabetes, but in Type 1 cases cannot do the job alone.
Not the only player
Hall of Fame third baseman Ron Santo, the late Chicago Cub, dealt with diabetes throughout his career. He kept it secret for years because he feared that lack of awareness of the disease in the 1950s and 1960s would result in him being exiled from baseball. Many years later, after revealing his own problems with the illness when he was still broadcasting Cubs games, Santo drew attention to the cause with an annual fundraising event, a special occasion that is part of Santo’s legacy. The 36th annual Ron Santo Walk To Cure Diabetes is scheduled for Oct. 5 in Chicago.
As a player Santo sometimes stepped to the plate with double vision stemming from the disease. Later, he had both legs amputated because of circulatory problems – but he kept on coming to work in the Wrigley Field Press Box. During Santo’s lifetime, the walk raised about $60 million for diabetes research and it continues to raise large sums of money with the aim of curing the disease.
When doctors first informed McGowan that he was going to have to stick himself with needles for pre-meal injections and with a 24-hour, long-lasting insulin dose, he didn’t like that idea at all and had his nursing school graduate wife do the dirty work. Over time he has gotten used to the task. It helps that he realizes it is so important.
McGowan once was in love with sugary sodas, but had to eschew his favorite drinks. He monitors his blood sugar readings constantly – except between innings when he is pitching. But if he feels a little bit light-headed he sips some kind of soda in hopes of balancing out his sugar level. To his surprise, McGowan discovered he doesn’t even like the taste of soda anymore.
For him, it could be a matter of life and death.