NASCAR Illustrated -- Ryan's Hope: Reed rolls on despite diabetes
August 20, 2014, Kris Johnson, NASCAR Illustrated
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It's a rare kid who knows what he wants to do with his life at 17. Rarer still is when that person is told he'll never be able to do it again at such a young age.
Ryan Reed was that person.
And now, at 20, he is doing exactly what he's always wanted to do: Race.
An initially devastating Type-1 Diabetes diagnosis came early in 2011 after Reed had done enough on the track to secure a developmental deal with Kyle Busch Motorsports. The Bakersfield, California, native had successfully navigated each rung of the racing ladder to that point in his ascension from karts, Legends and super late models. His trophy case overflowed with hardware that included multiple championships at Irwindale Speedway. So Reed moved from California to North Carolina to advance a career teeming with promise at KBM.
On the way there, as Reed got settled a continent away from home, his racing journey was derailed. Reed lost weight and battled an unquenchable thirst.
Upon his return to California just 10 days later, his father knew something was terribly wrong.
The diagnosis came shortly thereafter and it was accompanied by damning words from the attending physician.
You'll never race again.
After the initial shock Reed immersed himself in online research in hopes of muting the doctor's decree.
Reed had lost 30 pounds but he'd never lose hope.
The Internet first led him to the story of Charlie Kimball, an IndyCar driver who'd received the same diagnosis and still persevered with his racing career. The best news: Kimball's endocrinologist worked only a couple hours from the Reed family's home in California.
Dr. Anne Peters, the director of the Univ. of Southern California's Clinical Diabetes Program, soon began directing Reed's path back to racing. While Peters offered renewed hope, she also made it abundantly clear that he would have to work as hard outside the race car as he would inside of it. This would entail a complete lifestyle change with rigid diet and exercise regimens along with constant monitoring and reporting back to his medical team in California.
"The problem with diabetes is it's an overwhelming diagnosis," Peters said. "The way you say you're going to be at the beginning may change, so people go through all sorts of reactions and sometimes people don't deal well with it at first. Ryan seemed to be doing well at first so it took me explaining to him what needed to be done and him doing it. It took a month or two to get to know him as a person and as a patient to realize that he was going to do this, that he would do the work, that he was responsible."
For his part, Reed went all-in on his road to recovery.
"There were definitely some expectations involved but at that point, I didn't care," he said. "I'd gone for a month or so thinking I wasn't going to race again. Whatever she wanted to do, I felt like I was up to the challenge."
What at first was thought to be a career-ending illness proved only a minor detour for the determined Reed, who was back in North Carolina four months later but without the KBM deal he had treasured.
"We lost the deal with KBM because they wanted to start the season and we didn't know what was going to happen," Reed said. "They were nice about it -- they said, 'Let us know if Ryan can get back in a car.' But we felt, that year, that it was better just to keep the pressure off and stay in our own stuff. That was my best opportunity to date. At the time, it was frustrating. That was one of the toughest things -- at the end of 2010, we had momentum in racing. I was winning late model races. Felt like we were having a lot of success. That took us leaps and bounds backwards."
He made three K&N Pro Series East starts, though, in 2011 and graduated to a 14-race ARCA slate the next year. That led to discussions with Roush Fenway Racing and Reed found himself doing a five-race Nationwide Series deal with sponsorship from the American Diabetes Association and pharmaceutical maker Lilly in 2013. Now, Reed is competing full-time in the series and creating mass awareness on how to beat the disease.
"I've talked to kids racing dirt bikes or Legends cars and I think it's so cool," he said. "A lot of them have great things to say and they enjoy watching me. That's the coolest thing about this is meeting other kids going down the same path. They're not letting diabetes stop them. That's the goal of this whole program. We want to get rid of that stigma and if kids think they can't do something, they can use this story as a way to inspire them to keep pushing. Whether that's finding a new doctor or just working better with their own doctors."
Along with a steady diet of exercise and low glycemic food (think: sweet potatoes), Reed must remain vigilant with giving himself daily insulin shots and monitoring his blood sugar levels. The self-administered shots are done through the abdomen but there is a different process in place should Reed ever need insulin during a race (see sidebar page 59). He wears a hypodermic sensor at all times and checks "probably around 20-30 times a day" with the data relayed back to Peters in California.
"I have it in all the time," Reed said. "I change the sensor every seven days. It's just a plastic disk and it has a little hair wire. Basically, I give myself an injection and when I pull a clasp on the needle and at the same time it pulls the needle out, it releases a hair wire that's stored in the needle."
The high-tech era we live in is highly beneficial to Reed and Peters as their ongoing contact is easily managed.
"He comes to see me every three months in the office when he's on the West Coast," she said. "I'm only a text away ever or a phone call -- he has technology with him with the continuous sensor that he just has to upload data and I can look at it. So a lot of this can be done virtually. Ultimately, it's him and the car with his team and then we analyze and then reanalyze what we've done and make sure that each time he's safe.
"So far, there's never been a moment in the car where I've worried about him."
Reed, whose blood sugar level now ranges between 120-200 after being 300 when diagnosed, echoed those sentiments.
"It's definitely crept up to where I'm keeping an eye on it but it's never overstepped the boundaries," he said. "That's very encouraging to have gone three years and have never felt like it was a problem. And I've raced through colds and fevers -- we've had challenges for sure. An hour before the race, we're stressed out because when you're sick, it makes your blood sugar do weird things."
Peters described herself as a typical mother -- she worries about the inherent dangers of racing incidents -- but the doctor has no such concerns from the standpoint of Reed's disease causing any on the race track.
"My comfort level is exceedingly high," Peters said. "I wouldn't let him be out there if it wasn't. There's no way he's gonna race if he's not safe. It's not even an issue. Diabetes can always surprise you but if his blood sugar trended too high or too low, we'd know what to do. It's not like he's gonna go from normal to abnormal in a single minute. It's not like a seizure that you don't know it's coming on. It's something where you can see the pattern and if it started to go low we are prepared. Preparation is everything."
Peters has worked with athletes in a wide swath of sports and her expertise in the diabetes realm came to the forefront when she "coached" gold-medal winning U.S. swimmer Gary Hall Jr. at the Summer Olympic Games in Sydney and Athens. In Reed, she discovered a resoluteness that was rare for someone his age at the time of diagnosis.
"Ryan was a determined 17-year-old," she said. "He was so clear at age 17 that he knew the key to his success was finding a health care team that could help him. He just knew it and he was 17 years old and that was amazing to me."
Rather like Reed's journey in NASCAR itself.
Craig Herrmann is an engine tuner by trade but he's also asked to do much more for the No. 16 team and driver Ryan Reed.
Herrmann is responsible for giving Reed a shot of insulin -- he hasn't needed one yet -- during the team's well-orchestrated pit stop. There's always pressure to perform on pit road but this is something else altogether.
"I'm definitely worried about breaking the needle off," Herrmann said. "It's a pretty short needle. You're gonna have to get it in there pretty good. The firesuit has a special spot sewn into it but you're gonna have to push pretty hard to get it through that and get it far enough into him. So that would be my only fear or anxiety."
Herrmann described the insulin pen as being 7 inches long with a 3/8-inch needle affixed at one end. He would apply the necessary amount of insulin on the other end. Provided the insulin level was in range and the pit crew was doing its job, all of this would take place through the window net in a matter of 12-13 seconds.
"Hopefully it's just one rip on that pen and we can get it in there and he can just keep on with it," Herrmann said. "We do a little bit of practice, just kind of the motions and what the choreography of it would be trying to get around the jackman. We want to get the work done during a pit stop so that we're not having to make two stops."
Unlike Reed's self-administered shots, which are performed through his stomach, Herrmann will have to hit a bull's-eye on the inside of his driver's left thigh.
Another possible source of anxiety there?
"I know what you're getting at!" Herrmann laughed. "Yeah, you got those two submarine straps there. You're wide open. I told him if he complains, we'll just do that. If he whines too much on the radio, we'll come in for one of those changes (laughs)."
The good news is Herrmann hasn't had to perform the task. Even in practice, they simply mimic the maneuver without using an actual needle. Reed takes care of himself and there are other preventive measures before a shot would be required.
"I have a drink in my car that will spike my blood sugar," Reed said. "It has carbs, sugar and protein. I drink that throughout the race regardless to avoid low blood sugar. If I had a severe low, where I was passing out, we have a medicine called Glucagon that we could use. That shouldn't be a problem.
"But if I was drinking that drink and the blood sugar just kept going lower and lower, there was nothing I could do, then we'd do everything we had to."
That's where Herrmann would come in. The duo has a good rapport and a high degree of trust after working with each other for five introductory races last year. Herrmann is also qualified in these matters.
"We had a little meeting before Ryan came to us here and kind of went over what his situation was and had the NASCAR doctors here," he said. "I had had some previous experience with my wife when she was pregnant. She had gestational diabetes, which is something you have just when you're pregnant. So I had kind of been through the training and done the shots and was a little bit familiar with the process."