Anthony Ast was a month shy of his seventh birthday in January 2002 when he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
He still remembers what his doctor told him: “Your life is about to change dramatically.”
His life did change. He had to make himself bleed to test the sugar in his blood, learn about simple and complex carbohydrates, and poke himself with a needle to get the insulin his body still can’t produce enough of on its own. Without insulin, a diabetic can’t absorb sugar and the consequences can be fatal.
“I remember hiding under a bed for a couple days,” he told the Courier Tuesday morning. “To do my insulin shots, they had to hold me down. It was after that little period of time that it became something I adjusted to and it became my lifestyle.”
His doctor was right. Ast’s lifestyle did change, but diabetes never got in the way of big aspirations and giant accomplishments. Now 17, Ast is on the cusp of his third season in the Western Hockey League and he expects to play a big role this year with the Vancouver Giants.
“I worked my butt off this summer on and off the ice every day to come back this year to be the best player I could be for the organization,” he said.
An ankle sprain kept him from the ice for most of the second half of the season and Ast, who had five goals and 10 assists in 48 games, is ready to make up for that lost time and move into a leadership role vacated by Vancouver veterans and now NHL draft picks like Jordan Martinook and Brendan Gallagher.
“I missed 30 games and I thought my number for my points didn’t show how I played,” said Ast, a five-foot-eight right-handed centre who grew up in Richmond. “Since we’re losing two big guys that scored 80 goals combined for us last year, I feel like this is the year I can step up and be the next go-to guy.”
Managing diabetes as an athlete means Ast checks his blood sugar levels as many as 20 times a day, compared to four or five times for a typical diabetic. He carefully monitors the food he eats, counts carbs, and considers the training hours and amount of exercise he gets, including how a packed arena or playoff hockey can spike his adrenaline. In that case he might take an insulin shot before a game, he says. If his sugar drops as his heart rate rises and he suddenly feels sluggish, he’ll take five minutes on the bench and drink juice.
In 10 years, Ast has learned to manage diabetes and pursue his dreams of professional hockey. He has Bobby Clarke for a role model; the NHL legend, three-time league MVP and two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Philadelphia Flyers was a diabetic and was once told he’d never play professional hockey.
“They told him he should quit,” said Ast.
Instead of dire predictions, Ast was told his life would be different from other kids he knew but that he could learn to take care of himself. He also learned he wasn’t alone. Soon after he was diagnosed, Ast made friends and learned about blood sugar and insulin from trained professionals at Camp Kakhemela, a summer camp for young diabetics. Forty-three campers attended the first camp in 1962, and since then at least a thousand more have ushered along a half-century worth of medical and technological breakthroughs that make it easier and safer to live with diabetes.
“The counsellors do a really good job teaching you that there is nothing wrong with you, it’s just a condition that you have to deal with like a lifestyle choice,” he said.
Unlike Bobby Clarke, no one told Ast diabetes will stop him from playing hockey.
Camp Kakhemela celebrates its 50th anniversary Sept. 15 at the Richmond Olympic Oval. For more details, visit campk50.ca.