Life as a diabetic: Morrow’s delicate balancing act

Brandon Morrow. (Nathan Denette/CP)

PALM HARBOR, Fla. — "I try not to make a big deal out of it," says Brandon Morrow as he leans back in his seat and pulls his pancreas out of his jeans pocket, spilling it on the table before him. It doesn’t look like most pancreases. Morrow’s looks more like a pager; it has buttons and batteries and a small gray screen with numbers on it. A thin white catheter runs out of its side, up his shirt and into his body through a small white pad just in front of his left hip. That’s where Morrow stabbed himself a few days ago to let insulin flow into his body and regulate his blood sugar levels, something his original pancreas began refusing to do when he was 17. It’s surrounded by small, acne-like marks from previous insertions. He’s focusing the points of entry on the left side of his stomach for now while the right side heals.

This is normal stuff for Type-1 diabetics who require the use of an insulin pump to manage their disease — such as Morrow. But it’s not so common for professional starting pitchers who are responsible for one of the most demanding tasks in sports — such as Morrow. The 29-year-old was the only type-1 diabetic to pitch as a starter in the MLB last season and stood to be the only one this year as well until Dustin McGowan surprised everyone and broke camp as the Blue Jays fifth starter. He too will play the delicate balancing act of maintaining a healthy blood sugar level on start days, a process that requires constant monitoring and attention due to the varying effects that athletic performance can have on the body.

Morrow was first diagnosed with diabetes when he was a high schooler in humble Rohnert Park, a small, carefully planned city along the Redwood freeway that cuts through California’s picturesque wine country. A typical night for Morrow at the age of 17 would go something like this: He’d lie down in bed at a reasonable time, sleep soundly for a few hours, and then wake up wide-eyed and frenzied feeling like his bladder was about to burst. He’d immediately rush to the washroom to urinate, realizing on his way that he was severely dehydrated, so much so that his tongue felt like a piece of wood sitting in his mouth. After urinating he would chug an exorbitant amount of water, just so his mouth could feel normal again, and go back to bed so he could repeat the routine a few hours later.

Some nights were better than others, but all of his days were the same. Morrow drank water constantly, to the point where his mother, Sharon, thought he was on a fad diet. His eyes were sunken with heavy dark circles under them and although he was lifting weights three times a week with a personal trainer — and downing high-carb weight gainer supplements afterwards — Morrow was losing what little weight he had to spare. He’d often feel dizzy and weak; his vision blurred unexpectedly throughout the day. One night he ate dinner at a pizza restaurant with his father, John, a contractor. Morrow drank four large cokes throughout the brief meal and later couldn’t make out the numbers on the scoreboard at a basketball game. And it really says something about how stubborn Morrow can be that it never occurred to him that something was wrong.

Morrow went through this for months and maybe he still would be if he hadn’t started complaining about his symptoms to a high school teammate during a conditioning session one afternoon. That teammate just so happened to have recently completed a paper on diabetes. You can imagine his concern. But Morrow still wasn’t convinced and sought out a second opinion later that evening from the esteemed offices of WebMD, which confirmed his teammate’s fears. He went to the doctor the next morning, where his blood sugar concentration was measured at 714 milligrams per deciliter. It’s supposed to be 100. Morrow was hospitalized immediately, where he was given fluids through an IV and injected with insulin. He gained six pounds by the end of the day.

"It’s tough but it’s really manageable. You try to stick to a routine," Morrow says. "I’ve got bigger things to worry about. We all do. I’ll never use it as an excuse." And it shouldn’t be, but the fact remains that on a biological level Morrow is performing with a handicap. Life as a diabetic has been made a lot easier thanks to that pager-like insulin pump which is tailored specifically to Morrow’s biology, supplying him with a steady drip of insulin throughout the day and providing a bigger dosage whenever he eats. But when Morrow takes the mound, the pump stays behind. And making sure his blood sugar doesn’t get too high or low can take some careful choreography.

That’s why Morrow makes sure every start day goes exactly the same. Up at 10 a.m. for a 7 p.m. start, he has breakfast and checks his blood sugar before heading to the ballpark for a 2:30 p.m. lunch and another check of the glucose levels in his bloodstream. Morrow does that with a prick of the finger, which provides a small blood sample to a glucometer, a small electronic device that gives him his level. If the number isn’t where it should be, he can eat something to bring it up or direct his pump to feed him more insulin to bring it down.

An hour and a half before the game he has a complex carbohydrate energy bar, checks his levels once again and does a crossword puzzle, which he has found to have little effect on his blood sugar but does relax his pre-start anxiety. Then he goes to throw his pre-game bullpen session, checking his blood sugar both before and after the exercise, to make sure he’s still constant. About once every five starts he’ll feel his blood sugar dropping during that bullpen session — the familiar blurred vision, lightheadedness and fatigue starting to creep in. A cup of cranberry juice or a couple sugar tablets will bring him back up, and he’ll check his blood sugar once more before he takes the mound for the start of the game.

He’ll check again after the first inning, and again after the second — making sure he’s not about to take the mound moments away from the strike zone blurring over. Even if he doesn’t eat anything, the adrenalin and anxiety of major league pitching can affect Morrow’s levels wildly. Sometimes during a game he’ll find his blood sugar suddenly up to 175 and have to inject insulin to bring himself back down. Mind you, he juggles all of this along with the extreme mental and physical strain of trying to get three outs an inning, executing a specific game plan for each hitter and trying to overcome the psychological squeeze inherent in professional sports. "In college, one of my first times pitching after I was diagnosed, I felt it on the mound. And after that I knew I didn’t want to go through that again," Morrow says. "That’s why I check like seven times before I go out there. If you’re high or low — it’s probably going to be a long inning."

And the last thing Morrow needs, in an especially crucial season for his ball club and his career, is for something else to go wrong. The condition is practically an afterthought for him at this point, so ingrained into his routine that he would feel weird not pricking his finger several times before a start. And no matter how that outing goes, Morrow will never mention his diabetes as a factor in his performance. Not that there haven’t been casualties after bad starts. "I’ve smashed a glucometer or two in my day," Morrow says. "I try not to throw them anymore. I think for now I’ll just stick to trays of sunflower seeds."

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