A Tale of Community and Support: Living with Diabetes in the RGV

Words by Melissa Cortes Santiago

Edited by Abigail Vela

A person thinking about making healthy food choices looking into the distance at two roads offering nothing but fast food choices.
Illustration by Deborah Cantu

November is filled with a plethora of holidays and festivities, from Dia de los Muertos to Diwali to Peanut Butter Lovers month, for those who celebrate. However, a commemoration that often goes unnoticed by the general population is National Diabetes Month. It makes sense; if you or anyone you know isn’t directly affected by diabetes, how can you be aware of the nuances? 

Diabetes affects some of the most vulnerable people in our community. In fact, Hispanic adults are 70% more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Locally, the South Texas Healthcare System estimates that one in three people in the RGV have diabetes. 

Contrary to popular belief, diabetes is not always caused by poor eating habits or obesity but rather by a combination of both genetic and environmental factors. For some, a diabetes diagnosis may falsely signal failure due to an unhealthy lifestyle, but diabetes can happen to anyone, and breaking that stigma can be the first step to making progress.

For Zeina Qubbaj, it started 14 years ago after she was rushed to the hospital for high blood sugar levels. Her high sugar levels, accompanied by other symptoms like weight loss and frequent urination, led to her being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes a week before her 6th birthday. 

“We didn't know anyone with [diabetes], and we were kind of scared to do anything,” said Qubbaj. “As you get older, you are able to feel if your sugar is high or low, but as a kid, you don’t, so it's harder.”

A woman sitting on a park bench wearing a pink vest with trees and greenery behind her.
Zeina has been living with diabetes for 14 years and has learned to manage it successfully. She has even become an advocate for more diabetes research. Photo Courtesy of Zeina Qubbaj

“We didn’t know anyone with [diabetes], and we were kind of scared to do anything,” said Qubbaj. “As you get older, you are able to feel if your sugar is high or low, but as a kid, you don’t, so it’s harder.”

Being one of the first people in her family to be diagnosed with diabetes was challenging to navigate, especially at such a young age. She remembers a moment after her diagnosis during her 6th birthday when she wasn’t allowed to have any of her Hannah Montana cake out of fear that her sugar levels would spike. 

As a Type 1 diabetic, Qubbaj needs to take insulin since her body no longer produces any on its own, and constantly has to monitor her glucose levels. Her family had to be trained on how to administer her glucagon in case she passed out due to extremely low blood sugar. One time in elementary, she didn’t eat enough and passed out, and an ambulance had to be called, an incident she recalls with a bit of humor. 


A bag with insulin bottles and syringes laid out on a flat surface
Some of the devices Zeina uses to monitor her glucose levels and administer her insulin. She has access to the readings on her phone, which makes managing her diabetes much easier. Photo Courtesy of Zeina Qubbaj.

Many of these challenges became easier for her and her family when she joined the South Texas Juvenile Diabetes Association (STJDA), a nonprofit that aims to empower children living with diabetes and their families. 


“We met a bunch of people through STJDA, and they helped a lot with advice on what they do and how they monitor their sugar levels,” said Qubbaj. 

Debra Franco, the executive director and founder of STJDA, explained the organization hosts camps where kids can meet others with similar diagnoses and foster a sense of community. Her son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 10 years old, and she founded the organization to help families going through similar circumstances. 


“The biggest hardship for newly diagnosed children and their families is having no one to turn to for advice or support,” said Franco. “We are not just committed to being a resource for the community but also to being advocates for kids.”


In addition to the camps, STJDA aims to educate children and the community about the importance of exercise and healthy eating habits with preventative programs like Stomp Out Diabetes


Franco acknowledged the barriers that many families in the RGV face when trying to access healthy food, such as high costs and limited transportation. They offer a community pantry with access to healthy food options, something she hopes the organization can soon take to different communities throughout the RGV. 


After living with diabetes practically her whole life, to Qubbaj, checking glucose levels and changing her insulin every three days has become routine. She learned to manage her diabetes successfully and has even gone to Congress to advocate for more funding for diabetes research. Now, as an engineering major at UTRGV, her worries are mostly midterms and graduation. 


However, she hopes that in the future, diabetes will be better taught in schools to debunk some of the misconceptions surrounding it. 


I’m not even blaming anyone because I feel like if I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t know either. But just do your research and be aware of the people around you and the different things that they are going through,” Qubbaj shared.

Doctors and patients in a room locked in conversation. Doctors are checking patients' vitals and educating them on their diagnosis.
Illustration by Deborah Cantu

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