Parkite Lauren Salko manages Type 1 diabetes and a NorAm race career
Lauren Salko has Type 1 diabetes, but she’s not about to let it keep her from being a competitive ski cross racer.
The 27-year-old has experienced firsthand the different treatment methods for the condition with which she was diagnosed more than a decade ago, going from multiple daily injections to an insulin pump with continuing finger pricks to test blood sugar levels, then to a continuous glucose monitor, so now she can go nearly finger-prick free while pursuing her Olympic dream.
Salko grew up in Larchmont, New York, and attended Kents Hill Boarding School in Readfield, Maine, where she discovered alpine racing.
She then fell in love with ski cross while racing at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, and as soon as she graduated in May 2015, she hit the road to Park City.
“I graduated, then literally started driving,” she said. “I didn’t even want to walk (across the stage) but my parents were fairly insistent.”
This season, she took second in the USASA ski cross national championships and finished the NorAm tour ranked 13th overall. She says living with diabetes has become a source of strength for her.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder that makes it difficult for those affected to regulate their blood sugar levels as their bodies attack their own insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
Low blood sugar can cause seizures and brain damage within a matter of hours and inversely, high blood sugar can result in diabetic ketoacidosis, where the body processes fats too quickly resulting in fatigue, nausea, confusion and other symptoms. Chronic high blood sugar can also result in long term damage to nerves, eyes and the kidneys.
“Low blood sugar can be really confusing to me because to me it feels like adrenaline,” Salko said. “It’s that shaky feeling. … High blood sugar feels kind of like you’re dehydrated and maybe have the flu.”
Generally, regulating blood sugar is tricky business.
It’s expensive and, until recently, has been hard to judge.
“With diabetes, people always want to make it into a regimented thing,” Salko said. “But I can eat the same thing for breakfast five days in a row, take the same insulin, and have a completely different blood sugar at the end of it. Because every hormone plays a role. Not just hormones in terms of, like, menstrual cycles, but hormones in terms of like excitement, anxiety – all those things. Or how much sleep I got the day before.”
When Salko first was diagnosed as a teenager, she took multiple shots of insulin per day to regulate her glucose levels.
She would take a long-acting insulin shot first thing in the morning, then a fast-acting shot every time she ate anything or if her blood sugar was high.
To make sure her blood sugar was at safe levels, Salko used to have to prick her finger multiple times a day. She said it was particularly scary at night when she knew she would go long stretches without eating, a natural way of keeping blood sugar from dipping.
“I used to set an alarm on my phone to wake up every two hours at night because I was fearful I wouldn’t wake up,” she said.
It’s also hard to regulate on race day.
During race days she would check her blood sugar upwards of 15 times per day. Taking a single reading would only tell her what her blood sugar levels were at that moment. She had no way to tell if they were changing unless she checked again.
Salko explained it like driving a car and only being able to see her speed at one given moment.
“It doesn’t tell you whether you’re going faster or slower,” she said. “Say it says I’m going 60 mph, which is great if you want be going 60 mph, but if the speed limit is 65, you want to make sure you’re not speeding up super quickly.”
That started to change in 2014, when Salko got her first continuous glucose monitor and insulin pump. The latter distributes a continual low dose of fast-acting insulin, meaning she wouldn’t have to take multiple insulin shots per day to regulate her blood sugar. The former allowed her to actively see her blood sugar levels, and started to reduce the number of times she would have to prick her finger per day. Starting in 2018, she got an updated glucose monitor that displays the direction of her glucose levels with small arrows, she can sense the direction and speed at which her blood sugar is changing, making pricking her finger nearly obsolete.
Now she only uses pricks her finger as a backup measure.
Her new glucose monitor distributes information to her smart watch so she can check her blood sugar level by simply peeking under the cuff of her glove. It also sends information to her phone and the phones of her trainer and coach so they know how she is doing during competitions and can intervene if her blood sugar level becomes erratic.
The price of success
None of that has changed the monetary cost of dealing with Type 1 diabetes. Salko said she was unable to find an insurance plan on the marketplace that suited her needs. Now she pays $1,550 a month for private insurance. Part of that is because of the exorbitant price of insulin in the United States Salko estimated she uses the equivalent of $600 in insulin a month, which would cost $60 in Canada.
But for all the headaches and cost it has caused her, Salko said having Type 1 diabetes has made her more conscious of herself.
Because of diabetes, she said she is more in tune with her body than she would be otherwise.
“I know exactly how different food affects my body,” she said. “And I tend not to sweat the little things as much because, there’s bigger things to worry about.”
She said it’s given her a broader perspective on life.
“It’s the same in ski cross as it is in diabetes,” she said. “We can’t always control the outcomes – just like this weekend.”
On April 13 and 14 she competed in the Canadian Ski Cross National Championships, which doubled as NorAm competitions at Sunshine Banff resort in Alberta. She took 13th and 14th in the two races. “I skied really well, probably the best I have all season; I didn’t have great outcomes,” she said. “There are things that are out of our control. But you can always control what you do with the information you receive, and your process.”
She’s sharing that message with others through public speaking on managing Type 1 diabetes.
Through the years, it’s never been easy, but Salko has never let that discourage her before.
Like, the challenge of ski cross racing, diabetes is something she has adapted to.
Park City Mountain Resort is scheduled to start limited summer operations on Saturday, including the operation of PayDay lift for hikers and bikers.