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Huntsville's Pember deals with diabetes

By Mark McCarter
May 16, 2002

David Pember produces a small, black, zippered nylon bag, half the size of a travel shaving kit. In the other hand, he holds a pair of light gray plastic cylinders, appearing at first to be felt-tip pens.

They are his constant companions.

To throw a deep tone of melodrama quickly into this saga, they are what keeps him healthy and alive.

David Pember is a diabetic.

David Pember is also a professional baseball player.

Seldom do those two sentences intertwine. Nor should they be considered mutually exclusive.

Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter was diabetic. So too Bobby Clarke, the former Philadelphia Flyer. And Scott Verplank, the pro golfer, and Olympic swimmer Gary Hall Jr. are perhaps the most well-known.

Diabetes may be a life-long illness, but it’s not a life sentence.

Witness Pember, a 23-year-old pitcher for the Huntsville Stars, who is a Type 1 diabetic. It is the most nefarious form of the disease. His body produces no insulin, which is required to break down the sugars and starches in his food and turn them into energy.

A couple of times a day, he’ll uncap those plastic cylinders and inject himself with insulin. He’ll stick the needle in his belly, his buttocks or his upper thighs.

Frequently during the day, he’ll unzip the zippered bag that encases One Touch Ultra, a diagnostic kit. He’ll gently prick a finger on his left, non-pitching hand, let a drop of blood ooze out and capture it on a tiny strip. Almost instantly, it analyzes his blood sugar level.

It is with the ease and eagerness of a 6-year-old bringing in a pet goldfish for show-and-tell that Pember produces the tools.

It is with ease he handles diabetes in the shallow world of professional baseball.

It is with eagerness he shares the story.

He was 15 years old. He was riding in the family car near their home in Knoxville, with his parents, Don and Nancy.

David realized he couldn’t make out the words on even the largest of billboards. They did the natural thing, which was to begin having him fitted for glasses. There were other symptoms, though. He had begun to exasperate his junior high basketball coach, having to excuse himself from practice for frequent urination. He always seemed sleepy. He had lost weight.

A neighbor suggested Pember had symptoms of diabetes. A visit to the hospital confirmed it. Don Pember recalled that it wasn’t a moment too soon. "Doctors said if we had waited another 24 hours, he could have developed brain damage."

David remembers "playing the tough-kid role the first couple of nights" after the diagnosis.

When a nurse came in with a syringe and an orange, on which David could practice giving injections so he could eventually give himself shots, his father said, "He told the nurse, ‘Just give me the needle,’ and he did it."

Don and Nancy weren’t always as strong.

"He was more mature about it than we were," Don says. The family was frightened, and full of questions.

Dr. Rose Schneier is a Huntsville pediatrician and deals with dozens of Type 1 juvenile diabetes patients. She has heard the questions.

"When the child is first diagnosed, the first thing they ask is, ‘Is my child going to die?’ I explain no," Dr. Schneier says.

"Then they ask ‘Can my child lead a normal life?’ I tell them this is not the end. Your child will still be able to be a scholar, an athlete. My job and the job of physicians is to take care to fit the regimen to the patient, not the patient to the regimen.

When that patient is a professional athlete, it’s not always so simple. Pember says it has been "a trial and error period, pretty much every day." An athlete’s lifestyle, with odd hours and the physical demands, requires close monitoring. "You get to the point," Pember says, "where you’re able to cut things off before they happen . . . because you recognize the symptoms."

He will go so far as to check his blood sugar level occasionally between innings, to see if he needs a quick snack or a jolt of Mello-Yello. "For the most part (the blood sugar) is pretty stable," he says.

"I’m sure there is some doubt that they’re still going to have the same quality of life. It’s not that true," he says. "People think diabetics aren’t going to be able to eat what they want and do what they want. If you’re smart about knowing your foods . . . there’s no reason people can’t live a normal life."

But Pember never blames the diabetes for any misfortune on the field. You can probably make the argument that dealing with the diabetes has helped on the days when pitching goes sour.

"It’s made me a stronger person mentally, I think," says Pember, who's 3-2, 3.21 through eight starts covering 42 innings. "I have a bad outing and I’ve gone through diabetes. You know . . . "

The rest of the sentence doesn’t need completing.

Says pitching coach Stan Kyles, "It just shows you a little bit more about the type of guy he is. He’s not going to be deterred in his quest to get to the big leagues. He (manages the disease) with a lot of diligence. He doesn’t let it control him. That’s the way he operates on the mound. You see the same attitude. He’s always in control, through the good and the bad."

"I think God has a plan for me, and that plan was for me to be drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the eighth round," Pember says. "I think his plan for me right now is Double-A. I don’t know what the plan is from here on. Hopefully, it’s his will to get me to the big leagues."

Along the way, "hopefully I can impact not just diabetics, but other people."

Says Pember, "To me, diabetes is not something hard to get over. It takes knowledge and discipline. It’s just like anything else, the fact you’ve got to keep going."

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