Mont Alto, Pa. - According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) more than 29 million Americans have diabetes and one in four people with the disease do not even know he or she has it. Penn State Mont Alto men's basketball player, Austin Towner can be classified in the 1.7 million people aged 20 years or older who were newly diagnosed in 2014.
Towner, one of the many non-traditional students here at Penn State Mont Alto was a senior at Littlestown High School when he was initially diagnosed with the disease and he believes it was a combination of factors that led to the diagnosis.
"It all happened out of the blue as I was fairly healthy growing up," said Towner. "During my senior football season, I ran a route over the middle of the field and took a hard shot to my side where I was sandwiched by a linebacker and safety, but I actually bounced off the hit for a 45-yard completion. It wasn't until I got to the sideline that I noticed how much pain the side of my body was in."
His side was sore in the days following the hit, but the pain resided and he returned to the gridiron where he eventually transitioned to the basketball court in the winter athletic season. Towner took another hard shot to almost the same exact spot going up for a layup against Delone Catholic High School and was advised to go to a chiropractor as those around him thought his back/rib area were out of alignment and was the cause of the pain he was experiencing.
"The chiropractor definitely helped with the pain, but I along with the teachers around me could still tell something was up when weeks after both instances I would frequently doze off or had trouble responding to questions being asked during classes," said Towner.
Towner was sent to the schools nurse and she determined he had to go to the emergency room. It was there while running tests that they realized his sugar levels were astronomically high and that his pancreas was producing little to no insulin, a hormone needed to allow sugar to enter the cells to produce energy. Towner was officially diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, once known as juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes.
"Like many diabetics, I went through what is called a honeymoon phase where there were days that I would check my sugar levels and they would be normal so I wouldn't take an insulin shot," said Towner. "In my head I was like I don't have diabetes anymore, but I quickly learned that wasn't the case when the honeymoon phase ended and I actually passed out because of a lack of insulin."
After graduating from Littlestown, Towner took a couple of semesters off before taking classes at Harrisburg Area Community College before eventually enrolling as a Human Development Family Studies major here at Penn State Mont Alto.
"Getting a Penn State education and the opportunity to compete at the collegiate level on the basketball court is what brought me to Mont Alto," said Towner.
Living on campus and managing diabetes has been an adjustment for Austin Towner. Instead of being able to wake up, eat breakfast and go to class in the morning he has to prick his finger, which tests his blood making sure his sugar levels are where they need to be. A normal day for Towner consists of at least five self-injected insulin shots. He also had to adapt to different pregame and pre-practice rituals than the ones he used in high school because of the diabetes.
"I try to eat a small meal or snack before each event as it helps keep my energy level up," said Towner.
The 2016-17 men's basketball season saw the team go 13-13 overall with a 9-7 record in the PSUAC. It also marked the first time that Austin Towner competed on a basketball court as diabetic in a competitive situation since his diagnosis.
"There were definitely times in practice or even game situations that I could tell my sugar was low," said Towner. "I start to shake, get light-headed and can't focus, when this happens I will drink a Gatorade or Coach Jack Schenzel would have a candy bar handy, which helps balance out my sugar levels."
Austin Towner is just one example of how diabetes is a serious disease that can be managed through physical activity, diet, and appropriate use of insulin and oral medications.
"Moving forward it's my goal to do everything in my power to help the team win while also continuing to manage my disease to the best of my ability," said Towner.