Type 1 diabetic turns diagnosis into career

Early lessons in nutrition and exercise inspire a life of strength coaching

Spencer Carlson lifts weights with Sanford POWER sign.

Note from the writer: I had the opportunity to interview my younger brother for this story. Between his working for Sanford POWER and my being employed at the Good Samaritan Society, it was the perfect opportunity to combine both organizations into one fun project. I may be biased, but my brother is pretty amazing.

Leading a healthy lifestyle can have its challenges from finding the time to exercise to eating the right foods. For Spencer Carlson, strength and conditioning specialist at Sanford POWER in Fargo, it was a way of life from the young age of 5 years old.

“My parents started to notice that I was losing weight and was thirsty and using the bathroom all the time; I just wasn’t looking like a healthy kid, so they took me in,” said Carlson. “They tested my blood glucose level, and it was about five times as high as it was supposed to be, so it definitely threw out some red flags.”

Carlson was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease that causes the pancreas to stop producing insulin.

A new way of life

During his hospital stay, Carlson and his parents learned how to manage his diabetes through blood glucose testing and insulin injections.

“They (my parents) were giving a 5-year-old kid shots for the first time,” said Carlson. “Luckily, they had a lot of good help with a nurse who rolled up her sleeve and said, ‘You’re going to practice on me before you ever try it on your son.’”

Eventually, testing blood sugar levels and injecting insulin became a way of life.

“I should be testing about five to eight times a day, or if I feel kind of weird or off,” said Carlson.

To test blood glucose levels, Carlson inserts a test strip into the blood sugar meter. Then, using a lancing device, he draws a small drop of blood on the side of the fingertip. The test strip captures the blood sample and within a few seconds, the blood glucose level will appear on the meter. That number determines whether the blood sugar is within the normal range, or is high or low.

When blood sugar levels are too high, insulin can be injected through a shot or insulin pump. “Insulin counteracts the carbohydrates I’ve put into my body so I’m not having high blood sugars. The insulin pump is attached to my side below the skin and delivers insulin whenever I need it,” said Carlson.

Highs and lows

Ensuring Carlson received proper nutrition also played a crucial part in managing his new lifestyle.

“I couldn’t just be carefree and have a snack when everyone else could when my blood sugar was too high,” said Carlson. “My dad and I would be doing push-ups, sit-ups and squats at 10 at night in the middle of the room until my blood sugar came back down.”

With the highs, also came the lows. Carlson and his family twice experienced what happened when blood sugar levels dropped too low.

“I had two seizures because of low blood sugars when I was seven and when I was 11; both happened in my sleep,” said Carlson. “Definitely gave my parents a scare, but they adjusted accordingly. My dad, being the saint he is, would wake up at 2 a.m. every morning and make sure that my blood sugar was okay. He tested as I was sleeping.”

Discovering his fitness passion and creating a career

Growing up, having type 1 diabetes didn’t stop Carlson from being an active and competitive kid.

“If you ask my sister, she would tell you that we’d race to the bus down the driveway every day, and if I didn’t win, I wasn’t very happy about it,” said Carlson, smiling.

When it came to sports, Carlson says basketball was his first love.

“I played on a dirt patch with a hoop on the shed when I was a kid. I loved doing that, but then I stopped growing, so it kind of dashed dreams of playing in the NBA. So then I went to playing football and running track.”

In high school, Carlson participated in basketball, football and track, leading him to play three years of college football and track at Dakota State University in Madison, South Dakota. There, he pursued his passion for sports and fitness by earning a degree in exercise science with a minor in physical education.

Throughout his life, Carlson learned how the human body worked while managing his diabetes, exercise and diet. This inspired him to want to help people accomplish physical well-being.

“What underlies my strength and conditioning profession is my passion to help people as well as my interest in how the body functions and what it needs,” said Carlson.

Today, Carlson is a strength and conditioning specialist at Sanford POWER in Fargo, North Dakota, training athletes and other clients.

What is Sanford POWER?

When a client first arrives at Sanford POWER, they receive a consultation and then are given a tour of the facility.

“I show them what we have to offer here such as the field turf, plyometrics, Olympic lifting platforms, weights and machines,” said Carlson.

Anyone from grade school to college-age clients can become a part of the Sanford POWER community. What can one expect during a strength and conditioning training session?

“I’ll do some speed and agility drills with a lot of my athletes,” said Carlson. “Then we go into some plyometrics with box jumps, ball slams and any kind of band work. We then get into our strength portion where we’re lifting heavy weights, trying to get stronger to be more prepared for their season, whether they’re in preseason, off-season or somewhere in between.”

One of the unique things offered at Sanford POWER Fargo specifically is a hockey treadmill. The large, inclined treadmill helps hockey players train for their season to become a more powerful athlete. There is also a patch of synthetic ice for players to practice shots and stick work.

“At Sanford Power, it’s a really nice feeling to want to help people achieve their goals. It’s not just a coming in, training, clocking out type of thing. Our employees interact with each other and share ideas and philosophies. We’re getting better so we can help our clients and athletes get better,” said Carlson.

The power of physical therapy

Along with the strength and conditioning specialists, sprinting coaches, dietitians/nutritionists and sports scientists, physical therapists are also available to help with a variety of injuries at Sanford POWER. Having had a few injuries during his athletic career, Carlson knows all too well how beneficial therapy can be.

“I tore an ACL in football during my junior year of high school. A really good surgeon took care of me and then the day after surgery a physical therapist was wrenching and pushing on my leg, making sure things would work the best possible functionally that they could. I learned that I’ve got to be a little bit more patient with processes,” said Carlson.

Two years ago, Carlson also broke his foot playing basketball, which led him to see a physical therapist at Sanford POWER in Sioux Falls.

“I did five to six weeks there working on a broken foot, trying to get it stronger and better with a few things because it didn’t require surgery,” said Carlson. “They were able to help me recover from where I couldn’t walk at all, to being able to do all the things that I like to do, such as Olympic lifting, playing basketball, running, even being a better strength and conditioning coach.”

That’s the goal at Sanford POWER – to help clients reach their full potential, whether they are healing from an injury, training for a sports season or simply trying to achieve overall wellness.

For Carlson, that’s always been his goal – even with type 1 diabetes.

Nothing to hold him back

Carlson has never let his diagnosis of type 1 diabetes prevent him from doing what he loves and achieving his dreams.

“The one thing I’ve always thought about being a type 1 diabetic is that it’s not a death sentence; it is a disease. There isn’t a cure for it, but that doesn’t mean there’s no hope,” said Carlson.

At Sanford, the goal is to find a cure for type 1 diabetes in Denny Sanford’s lifetime, which is referred to as The Sanford Project.

“Sometimes I honestly forget that I’m a type 1 diabetic because I’m able to do all the things I want to do. There’s going to be some bad days, but as long as you’re taking care of yourself and having responsibility and integrity with your decisions, what you’re putting into your body, exercising, getting enough sleep, you’re going to be just like everybody else,” said Carlson. “It’s just a new way of life – a new way of seeing the world.”

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Posted In Healthy Living, Sports, Sports Medicine

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