KEARNEY — When Siena Bonk was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes on Aug. 2, 2016, her life changed dramatically. It changed even more when COVID-19 arrived.
“I didn’t really know what was happening at first,” said Siena, now 12. “Then COVID got a lot more serious, and I started getting worried. People said that people with diabetes had a lot higher risk than other people.”
Her parents, Mark and Christine Bonk, were worried, too.
“At first no one knew what to expect,” Christine said. “We kept hearing others tell us, ‘You need to be careful. People with diabetes are at high risk,’ but we tried to assure her that she would be OK.”
The family seesawed about whether to stay home or socialize, or whether to let Siena see friends and participate in activities. They knew young people have less severe cases of COVID, but they worried that the virus could send Siena to the hospital.
As life closed down around her, she saw her friends through Zoom, Facetime and Snapchatting. She read books in her room. She made string friendship bracelets. “The harder ones take me more than a day, but I could do the easier ones in less than five minutes,” she said.
People told her she was at risk. They told her they’d heard about diabetics dying from COVID. But the sociable 12-year-old was bored. She began to get bored.
Her parents did their best to keep Siena healthy, and her brother Fisher, too. They did restaurant carryout and cooked more at home. “If anyone went out for groceries it was usually me or Mark,” Christine said.
“We wore masks in the house when we weren’t in our rooms. We did lots of handwashing. Having diabetes or any autoimmune disease puts a person at higher risk because you can’t be sure how your body will fight off a virus of any kind,” Christine said.
“I suppose we had a lot of fear of the unknown, like most people. Most things were canceled so it wasn’t too hard to stay home at first, but as summer hit and things started back up again, we had to make decisions on whether to let her go,” she added.
Last fall, when school, softball, dance and church resumed, Siena put on a mask and went. “By then, we didn’t feel we needed to seclude her from activities or do remote learning,” her mother said.
But COVID-19 cases soared late last fall, and in January, it invaded the Bonk home. Mark got sick first. He had difficulty walking and breathing for about five days and was hospitalized briefly with breathing issues. He then had severe cold symptoms for two weeks.
Christine got her first Moderna vaccine in January. Two days later, Mark tested positive, and two days after that, she tested positive, too.
“Mine was more of a really bad cold. I was able to work from home, except for taking a few days off to rest,” she said.
Fisher had cold symptoms, but his doctor advised that he stay quarantined at home. Only Siena stayed COVID-free.
“It was scary,” Christine said. “When I got symptoms, I went in right away. I wanted to know if extra precautions needed to be made for Siena. Doctors advised us to wear masks in the house and monitor her,” she said.
“I was the one who was helping her with pump changes and all things diabetes. I was also helping with homework while I was quarantined. I was cooking and cleaning and taking care of Mark when needed.”
In fact, she has had nothing but a bad cold in the past year. Whenever she went to the doctor, she was tested for COVID as well as strep and the flu, but all tests were negative.
Earlier this year, Siena’s Omaha endocrinologist told them that most of the Type 1 diabetics she has worked with did not get COVID in 2020 even when family members got it.
Life is back in full swing. After six months of online worship, the Bonks are back at Sunday Mass at Prince of Peace Catholic Church, where Siena is involved with Edge, the church’s youth group.
Siena is the catcher for the Central Nebraska Softball Academy’s Kearney Krush, a traveling softball team for 12-year-olds. As the catcher, she has to monitor her blood sugars closely because she constantly moves with each pitch. The family packs a diabetic cooler with snacks, insulin, apple juice and extra pump/Dexcom supplies.
She also helps raise money for juvenile diabetes and dances twice a week with The Dance Works. Last year, she attended American Diabetes Association virtual camp and will go again this summer.
No matter where she is, her purse is filled with snacks, ketone strips, glucagon pen and blood sugar monitor.
Siena’s doctors say she is healthy, strong and doing well. They also said mask wearing, handwashing, social distancing and staying active for her physical and mental health were important.
Siena has learned to manage her diabetes.
“She continues to amaze us with how strong, brave and resilient she is living with this 24-hour disease,” Christine said.
Especially during COVID-19. “I’ll probably remember it for all the boring days of sitting in my room,” she said.