The words came from a physician more than 600 miles from home. But to the Rice family, it seemed to be revealed by God himself.
Greenville parents Libby and Eric Rice believe God helped break the news of their son’s diabetes diagnosis last year and let them know things were going to be OK.
It took a 2019 trip to Tennessee for them to hear it clearly.
“It was a slow, steady unveiling,” Libby said. “It took us being on vacation to just have it say, ‘Here it is.’”
Nolan, a Greenville High School freshman, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes July 4, while on a family vacation in the Smoky Mountains.
He remains positive despite the life-changing diagnosis that requires him to continually count carbohydrates, monitor his glucose level and inject himself with insulin four times a day.
He jokes about going to Tennessee and “catching the diabetes,” saying it in his best southern accent.
“It’s one of those things that just kind of happens and you don’t know why it happens, it just does,” Nolan said. “I can’t do anything now, so I might as well joke about it from here on out.”
Nolan’s mother, Libby, started wondering if something was wrong with Nolan months earlier. “My mom radar had been going off for a couple of months,” she said. “He had been feeling funny, and he’s the kid who doesn’t complain about anything.”
She noticed subtle changes in March. Losing weight, Nolan seemed somewhat lethargic and wasn’t acting like himself. She tried to chalk it up to puberty. Then he almost didn’t want to go on his eighth grade East Coast trip in early June.
“I was miserable the whole time,” Nolan said. “I kept on saying, ‘I don’t feel good, I think I’m sick.’”
“But he had no symptoms of being sick,” Libby said. “He wasn’t feverish. There was nothing. He still ate, he was just contrary, unhappy, unsettled.”
“The first picture somebody sent me I just started bawling, because he looked miserable,” Libby said. “I was upset because I thought he was unhappy there.”
Once home, Nolan said he continued to feel bad, but couldn’t pinpoint why. “It’s really hard to describe,” he said. “I just felt thirsty all the time. Stuff tasted a lot different.”
Can I get a hallelujah?
After being home for two weeks, the family left June 30 for a week-long vacation to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The first two days they hiked in the Smoky Mountains, and Nolan said he felt lightheaded and couldn’t really feel his legs.
“I just figured he was in really bad shape,” his father, Eric, joked.
“We had noticed how much he was drinking,” Eric said. “It was a blessing we were on vacation, because we don’t spend 24 hours a day with him normally, so we didn’t know he was drinking 25 glasses of water a day until we were on vacation.”
After a day of rest July 3, the plan for Independence Day was to go to Dollywood Theme Park.
Nolan awoke that day and said he didn’t feel well, and then proceeded to pour and drink three glasses of milk, one after the other.
Concerned, Eric called their family pediatrician’s office. After listening to Eric describe Nolan’s symptoms, the on-call doctor encouraged them to take him right away to East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, a journey of about 45 minutes.
They canceled their Dollywood plans and drove to the Knoxville hospital.
“Within about 15 minutes of being there, they told us he had Type 1 diabetes,” Eric said. “All they had to do was a simple urine test.”
A faith-filled family, the Rices see God’s hand in how the diagnosis presented itself.
While driving around in Tennessee, they kept hearing a contemporary Christian song called “Raise a Hallelujah” by Bethel Music. The song’s message speaks of giving praise in the face of life’s storms. The songwriter felt inspired when praying for the young children of friends as they fought for their lives after contracting E. coli.
That wasn’t the only sign of divine timing.
Nolan’s nurse in the emergency department that day, also named Eric, played baseball and the guitar—just like Nolan. And he also learned he had Type 1 diabetes as a youth.
“It’s a total God thing,” Libby said. “It’s crazy,” she said, choking back emotion.
“He totally got it,” she said of the nurse. “He was the person. It’s like we were supposed to go there. That day. That shift. That hospital. All of it.”
Nolan allowed only a moment of self-pity, then learned to give himself insulin injections, something he’ll now have to do every day for the rest of his life.
“Nolan was a rock star,” she said.
“They started treating it immediately, and he felt better immediately,” Eric said. He gained 11 pounds overnight just being hooked up to an IV.
A two-day stay in the hospital included a lot of learning, with nurse educators showing Nolan and his family how to check blood sugar, how to count carbohydrates, properly calculate doses and give injections.
“It was a real whirlwind education,” Eric said. “All of a sudden we need to treat his diabetes. It was scary leaving the hospital. We had never counted carbs. It was the unknown and the fear of messing it up.”
But again, the song seemed to speak to the family, saying everything would be all right.
“Leaving the hospital, we got in the car and that song was on again, for cripes’ sake,” Eric said laughing.
And once home, they heard it again—live. The family attended a Praise in the Park event in Rockford where Greenville Community Church performed “Raise a Hallelujah,” now deemed Nolan’s song.
“You can’t make this up,” Libby said. “It’s just crazy, absolutely crazy how it all happened.”
Now, months later, they continue to learn and fine-tune how to best regulate Nolan’s blood sugar levels.
‘It’s math all the time’
Nolan has taken ownership of monitoring his blood sugar and counts grams and carbs in food before he consumes each meal, giving himself an insulin injection to counteract the food.
Nolan wears a continuous glucose monitor on his arm and takes what they’ve dubbed his “bug-out bag” with him everywhere, equipped with fruit snacks, a glucagon pen, insulin and glucose tabs.
Each evening at 9:30 p.m., a longer-lasting dose is given to keep his glucose levels in a safe range until morning. They try to elevate his blood sugar level to about 120 mg/dL, however his normal level is around 85-90.
“Getting him to 120 for bed is impossible, so he has ice cream,” Libby said. “I was giving him Frosted Flakes at 12:30 a.m. the other night.”
While she’s at peace with her son’s diagnosis, Libby still feels anxiety.
“Every single night about 9:30 p.m. I start to get uncomfortable,” she said. “You just have to make sure he’s going wake up in the morning, every single time you put your 15-year-old to bed.”
“It’s trial and error and it changes all the time,” Libby said. “It’s math all the time.”
“He does fantastic with it. I’m super proud of him,” Eric said. “I just wish I could give him a break. It’s a 24-hour-a-day disease that you can’t take a break from. You can’t take a day off.”
Despite this, having Type 1 diabetes hasn’t stopped Nolan from his favorite activities, and he can eat what he wants—he just has to plan and dose for the upcoming meal.
“He’s just a normal kid,” Libby said. “He’s just got this thing.”
Nolan is getting ready to try out for the baseball team this spring. He’s busy with school and practicing the guitar. He likes to hunt, fish and ride snowmobiles. He attended his first high school dance last fall. All normal teenage stuff.
Nolan’s sister, high school senior Kirsten, has been impressed with her younger brother.
“He’s handing it all really well,” she said. “But I feel like I’ve become a whole lot more protective of him, especially at school.”
“The reality is people are dealing with a lot of worse things than we are; he can live a totally normal life,” Eric said. “We just try to keep that in perspective.”
Nolan is doing well managing the disease in part because of his personality, his parents said.
“Maybe he’s the inspiration for doing what the doctors tell you to do, because he’s a rule follower,” Libby said. “When you do that, it works.”
Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital endocrinologist Donna Eng, MD, agrees.
“Nolan has handled his diabetes care in stride and has not let it slow him down,” Dr. Eng said. “He is an exceptional young man with an outstanding attitude.”
Nolan shrugs off concerns. “It’s not a thing unless you make it a thing,” he said.
Especially, as his mother said, “it’s a total God thing.”