Community service is a basic tenet of the athletic program at Mississippi University for Women, and Owls basketball players had two special reasons to take part in a community service event Sunday during the annual Mississippi Walk for Diabetes at Columbus Riverwalk.
Senior guard Katie Beth Williams was focused on trying to fashion a balloon animal in a tent set up to keep kids entertained. Her coach, Drew Johnson, was once told by doctors he was a day away from lapsing into a diabetic coma.
Not far away, sophomore guard Clay Blanton of the men’s team was handing out bands and stickers to participants. Dean Burrows, his coach, was once told he had a 20 percent chance of making it through the night.
But both men survived, both are coaching basketball at a school soon to be in NCAA Division III, and both have players very willing to spend part of their weekend helping out a cause very important to them.
You could say the cause is life or death.
Type 2 diabetes is often associated with lifestyle, including poor food choices and a lack of exercise. But while it often takes years of those choices to lead to diabetes, sometimes the disease takes a person by surprise.
Johnson is one of those people.
He was an assistant basketball coach and phys ed teacher during the 2015-16 academic year at Victory Christian Academy in Columbus when he started to feel ill.
“I started feeling just worse and worse,” Johnson said. “I thought I was dehydrated. … Diabetes never crossed my mind.”
One day at work, his condition reached “a boiling point,” in Johnson’s words. “I felt like my whole body was pretty much on fire.”
With a father who is a physician, Johnson, then 23, called his parents.
“They got me in to see our family doctor, and they started running some tests on my blood sugar and urine, things like that,” he recalled. “My blood sugar was over 700. I had ketones in my urine, which suggested I was on the verge of diabetic ketoacidosis.”
Insulin therapy was begun, but over the next few days his situation deteriorated.
“That Monday I couldn’t even get out of bed,” Johnson said. “I told my mom, ‘I feel like I’m dying.’ They rushed me to the ER, dropped me off at the front, and it was all I could do to walk through the door. I couldn’t even tell them what was wrong. I basically collapsed in one of those chairs.”
Naturally, tests were run, and he was in full-blown diabetic ketoacidosis.
“They said if I waited another day I would be in a diabetic coma,” Johnson said. “Blood sugar wasn’t as high, but it was too late. Once you’re in ketoacidosis, it’s too late.”
While life-threatening, DKA can be treated if action is taken quickly, and the necessary treatments began immediately.
“I couldn’t tell you all that happened because I was half-dead, but it was not a good experience,” Johnson said. “I spent basically a week in the ICU. Those first few days, I thought I was going to die.”
Mom wouldn’t let that happen.
“God love my mother,” Johnson said, tearing up slightly. “She lived in that emergency room with me. She was there every step of the way. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her.”
After about a week, he said the ketones stopped appearing, and he was discharged. Johnson said he found more support when he went back to work in the form of VCA basketball players.
“Those kids kept track of me,” he said. “They made sure. ‘Coach, your blood sugar OK?’ ‘Coach, what did you eat today?’ ‘Coach, have you eaten today?’ I can’t say enough about that state championship team, because they helped me through it. They kept me motivated.”
His mom learned how to cook for a diabetic: high protein, high fat, high fiber, low carb. Simple carbohydrates were out, complex carbohydrates were in, as was anything with a high fiber content.
“About a year and a half later I was able to officially get off of insulin, and I’m not insulin-dependent,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how long that’s going to last, but it’s a blessing right now.”
The motivation to stay on track is right in his memory.
“Ketoacidosis was the most pain I’ve ever been in,” he said. “I’ve had COVID, and the only thing that was worse than COVID was ketoacidosis. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. It really feels like your blood’s on fire.”
Dean Burrows is nothing like the common picture of a diabetic. The first-year Owls coach looks physically fit and is perfectly at home on a basketball court with his players during practice.
But Burrows is a Type 1 diabetic. Type 1 is an autoimmune condition in which your body produces little or no insulin, as opposed to Johnson’s Type 2, in which your body has difficulty using insulin.
Like Johnson, Burrows had no idea diabetes was a factor when he began experiencing pains.
“For months, I would get these sharp pains in my stomach once every week or two weeks,” he recpalled. “I self-dianosed like an idiot. I thought it was just stress from the season. I’d get these sharp pains where I couldn’t extend or stretch out.”
But he just tried to live with it until one night when he collapsed on the stairs. When he threw up bile, it was time to seek help.
“I told my wife I think I’m dying,” Burrows said. His mom lived a mile and a half away, so his wife stayed with their four kids while his mom rushed him to the hospital.
It turns out those pains were “gallstones the size of golf balls beating the heck out of my pancreas to the point where I have 10 percent of a functioning pancreas right now.” But there was more.
“I was in kidney failure, had an enlarged spleen, my blood sugar was 700, and I was septic,” he recalled. “That led to the 20 percent chance of making it through the first night. They told my wife to get ready, and we have four kids.”
That was May 16, 2018. He made it, but it wasn’t easy.
He remembers the wait time in the ER, and he remembers the pain, but “after that I don’t remember anything.”
He spent more than three days in the ICU and three weeks in the hospital. He had to wait 10 weeks to get his gallbladder removed, and he said he was hemorrhaging on the table, too.
But he eventually had that surgery, “a cancer screening came back good, and we’re here,” he said.
Mississippi Walk for Diabetes
So Johnson and Burrows have a very personal stake in helping the Mississippi Foundation for Diabetes, but, as the presence of Williams and Blanton showed, their players were right there with them.
Blanton sat at a table, waiting to greet walkers.
“I’m giving out bands for people to put around their wrist,” he explained. “If you’re diabetic you get a red band, if you’re walking for someone you get a green one, and if you walk for someone I give out a sticker for that.”
In addition to a desire to support his new coach, Blanton said there was a simpler reason to be there.
“We kind of want to give back to the community for coming out and supporting us,” he said after manning his post for three hours, unsure of when he would be leaving.
While Blanton dealt with walkers, Williams was dealing with kids a few yards away.
“It’s whatever the kids want to do,” said the “super senior,” back for a fifth year because of COVID. “We’ve got bean bags, hula hoops, we’re trying to make balloon animals.
“If they say yeah it looks like a dog, then I’m OK with it.”
Blanton said Burrows told the team about his diabetes early on, partially to explain why he always carried snacks. While diabetes is about high blood sugar, managing it can push blood sugar too low. And Johnson and Burrows have had to adapt to a new lifestyle, and both pointed out that the changes required don’t have to be extreme.
“Learning balance, learning moderation, that’s probably the best tools we can equip today’s youth with,” Johnson said. “It can be the difference between life and death.”
Added Burrows: “I want all diabetics to still go about our lives the way we want to live them.”