With two diabetic sons, local attorney, family, juggle work-life priorities

"Hello, my name is Jacob Howell, I am 18 years old and a senior at Stoughton High School. That is just basic information about me. It doesn't tell you who I am, what I do, what I believe in, or what my life has been about. What it does tell you about me is my family. They define the way I live." [Excerpts from a speech presented by Jacob Howell at the 2009 Juvenile Diabetes Foundation Gala at Monona Terrace in Madison.]

Like any mother, few minutes go by in a day when Roberta Howell, 48, is not juggling responsibilities. The first, and largest ball she keeps aloft represents her role as wife to Chris and mother to three sons: Jacob, 20, Eric, 17, and Daniel, 12.

As Chair of Distribution and Franchise Law in the Litigation Department at Foley & Lardner, the second ball represents her professional life and the clients she's represented for 22 years.

A third ball has recently been added to the mix: her role as newly elected president of the Western Wisconsin Chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), a group she's been active with for 10 years.
It's a role that, years ago, she may never have envisioned. But as sure as the change of seasons, life doesn't always go as expected.

In 2000, twelve years into her job at Foley & Lardner, Howell was nursing her youngest son Daniel, then two years old, back to health after a bout with the chicken pox. "He'd already had a regular check-up," she said, "and seemed to be recovering well. But he was also dry at night." Howell and her husband, Chris, initially thought they'd simply done a great job of early potty training, until Daniel began wetting himself again and would be extremely thirsty during the day. After additional tests, Daniel was found to a blood sugar level of 500. Normal is in the 85 to 100 range. Diagnosis: Type I diabetes.

Overnight, Howell and her husband learned how to administer insulin shots to their toddler multiple times a day, and received a crash course in diabetes care. Among the flurry of questions, answers, and concerns was one simple fact: Life in the Howell household would never be the same again.

"Life didn't go back to "normal" when we came home from the hospital. The attention I once got was now focused completely on my two-year-old brother. Family life turned upside down. Every meal was consumed with checking carbs and balancing diets. When my brother was still young, he dreaded the time after every meal when the painful shots happened. I can still remember spending hours in a different part of our house trying to not listen to the crying.

"Life seemed to be getting slowly better during the first year. But it would never be the same as before. We couldn't go anywhere without extra baggage to carry test kits, needles, insulin, test strips, snacks, and glucagon. I could no longer go to my fridge and get a regular soda, our family rarely went out to eat, but most of all there was a constant fear clouding my brother's life. When Daniel was first diagnosed, I was almost jealous that he got so much attention, but jealousy quickly changed to sorrow because I couldn't understand why this had happened to him."

Two years later, Howell's middle son, Eric, was diagnosed with the same condition, at the age of nine.

"I now had two brothers with the disease. I was now the odd one. I was afraid, to be honest. I was afraid that I would be next to be diagnosed. I was afraid to admit my relief that I didn't have diabetes. I was afraid about what would happen to my brothers. I was afraid about how unfair life truly could be."

Although Type II diabetes seems to get the most "press" because it is directly related to obesity and can often be controlled by diet, exercise and meds, there is no cure for Type I, by contrast, is an auto-immune disease that occurs when a person's body destroys the insulin-producing cells in the body, and a human must have insulin to survive. In other words, Type I can be deadly. [Readers may remember the highly publicized and untimely death of Toki Middle School 7th grader, Jesse Alswager, last February.]

"It's unusual to have more than one sibling with diabetes," said Howell, whose own mother was diagnosed with diabetes in the 1970s. Thus far, neither Howell nor her husband have exhibited symptoms. Nor has Jacob, the eldest of the three children who now attends Arizona State University.

The Howell household is typical in many respects, but the daily routines are different. The first thing Daniel and Eric do in the morning, for example, is prick their fingers, a task that will be repeated between four and six times each day. Then, between 2 and 3 each morning, Howell quietly slinks into the boys' rooms and checks their blood sugar levels. Both boys wear insulin pumps about the size of a pager on their belts which are attached like catheters under their skin and need to be replaced every other day. If a night time reading indicates a high sugar count, Howell quietly presses a button on the pump to administer a quick jolt of insulin. If a reading is running low, she has them drink juice through a straw. The routine has become so commonplace for the boys, often they don't even wake up.

Each morning, Howell puts on her attorney hat and reports to Foley & Lardner. Like any mother, her mind is never far away from her children, and she makes adjustments to her work schedule as necessary. Aside from JDRF, her professional involvement is limited. "You can never be gone or get involved in various activities because you might always get a call. When I go into a deposition and people turn their phones off, I leave mine on and apologize to those in the room. When I'm in a courtroom, I make sure my husband is on call."

The arrangement is working, but then, it has to.

Howell credits an understanding employer and close friends and family for helping the family through. "When I was a new mom in this job, I was always open about my child-pick-up duties. But many [women I knew] wouldn't have been because they wouldn't think people would be understanding about that. I think people are more understanding than you'd expect," she said.

The growing boys are now both heavily active in sports in Stoughton. Eric is a talented hockey and soccer player, while Daniel, the youngest, plays soccer and has shown an interest in golf. But forget the sleepovers that often accompany a youthful existence. "There are, unfortunately, normal things you can't do, or you do with a lot of trepidation," said Howell. A family night out, while focused on fun, is never without extra supplies such as snacks, needles and other items. It's a "just in case" existence..

Through it all, Howell has become and excellent juggler. "It's a hard thing for anyone in the professional world to figure out priorities. But this helps me say, "Okay, I have to deal with this. Right now." You have to manage your time and your life. It doesn't always work. So you think about and plan for the future, but take things one day at a time. That's really all you can do."

Once a month she meets with the JDRF executive director, usually before work or over the lunch hour, and helps plan the nonprofit's annual fundraisers.

The Howell family has been extremely active in its volunteer activities and contributions toward Juvenile Diabetes. Jacob, the oldest, spent several birthdays with his father riding in the 105-mile Ride to Cure Diabetes in Death Valley, California, and collectively, the family has raised or contributed more than $70,000 to support diabetes research. Howell's goal as the new president is to grow the chapter and increase the Foundation's coffers to its pre-recession level of over $1 million. But more than that, she hopes for the day when a cure is found so the Foundation can put itself out of existence.

Diabetes steals from peoples' lives. They cannot live normally once they have it, and their families can't either. Through previous medical advances, people with diabetes have been able to live more normally, but life will never be truly normal for them while diabetes exists. They still have the constant shadow of a disease they have to deal with every minute of every day. My stomach twists every time I think about what my brothers have had to go through.

For more information on the Western Wisconsin Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, visit http://www.jdrfwesternwisconsin.org.

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