Katelyn Prominski's doctor dismissed her weight loss, extreme thirst, and brain fog, leaving this top ballet dancer unsure of where to turn. At a friend's urging, she went for a blood panel, which started her on the road toward treatment and healing.
Katelyn Prominski, 36, always knew she would be a dancer. Growing up in Washington, D.C., she began dancing in The Nutcracker at the Kennedy Center in the 4th grade.
“Ballet is all I wanted to do,” she tells Health.
In high school, she was spent half the day in classes, and the other half training. Her hard work paid off, and by graduation she earned a contract with the San Francisco School of Ballet. Then in 2008, when she was 24, she joined the Pennsylvania Ballet.
“It was the peak of my ballet career. I was riding high, doing soloist and principal roles,” says Prominski.
As a dancer, she was used to powering through sprains, tears, and bone spurs. "With ballet, you have such a short time that you can do it as a career. That’s why you dance through injuries," she explains. "You keep pushing forward. You ignore all the stuff that’s going on because you just want to dance."
By 2010, however, she was experiencing puzzling symptoms she could no longer ignore.
“I started to feel hungry all the time, and I was eating a tremendous amount of food, probably two or three times what I ate normally," recalls Prominski. "And I was losing weight. I was down 25 pounds, and I had been thin to begin with. It was really rough and didn’t make sense."
She also had extreme thirst. “I was so thirsty, and I was drinking tons of water all the time,” she says.
Like other young adults, she didn't have a primary care doctor at the time. But with the encouragement of her then-boyfriend, Max, a fellow dancer who is now her husband, she made an appointment with her ob-gyn—who dismissed her symptoms.
“When I explained my symptoms and that I was losing weight, my doctor said I should consider myself lucky,” she remembers.
She was soon experiencing intense fatigue and confusion as well. “I couldn't go down the stairs quickly. My brain had slowed down. I couldn't make words come out of my mouth. I couldn’t maintain conversation. I thought it was my new normal, and I had kind of just accepted it,” she says.
Then an even scarier symptom appeared: her body was unable to fight off infections.
“I always had an infection. Because of my bone spurs, I would often get soft corns. I had one that nearly took me out with a staph infection that wouldn’t clear for months,” she says.
In May 2011 she underwent foot surgery, but her foot wasn't healing as fast as it should have been. That's when the podiatrist who had been treating her questioned her about diabetes.
“The podiatrist looked at me and said, ‘You don’t have diabetes, do you?’ And I was like, ‘Of course I don’t have diabetes.’ I dismissed it immediately. I was so high-functioning."
Though she wanted nothing more than to keep dancing, she no longer enjoyed it; she'd lost the love for dance she'd felt since she was young. Plus, she realized all of her worsening symptoms made it impossible to continue. She retired in October 2011 at 28 years old.
Her plan for the next several months was to take online classes while she joined Max on the road; he'd landed a role in the national tour of Billy Elliot. The week before they headed out, her best friend convinced her to seek medical help again.
“I had told [my friend] all of my symptoms," recalls Prominski. "How I had constant infections, and even a sinus infection would turn into a full-blown sickness. She said, ‘I think you have diabetes.’ She urged me to ask for a full blood panel."
To appease her friend, she made the appointment and explained her situation to her physician. “The doctor looked at me like I was crazy but agreed to do a full blood panel,” she says.
The results came back a few days later, and they showed that she had hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid. Her doctor asked her to follow up with an endocrinologist, a physician who specializes in hormone-related conditions.
“I made the appointment, and when I showed up, the nurse said to me, ‘You’re here for your diabetes.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m here for my thyroid,’" she remembers.
"The nurse told me to sit down and said, ‘Let’s take your blood sugar. If it’s over 120, you have diabetes.' It came back that my blood sugar was at 600. I was in shock. I honestly had no idea what diabetes even was."
The nurse advised her to go to the emergency room; with blood sugar that high, she could go into a coma, the nurse warned. “I waited in the ER for hours. They misunderstood that I had never been diagnosed with diabetes and had no idea what was going on or what to do,” she says.
Eventually, she left the ER and connected with a doctor from the endocrinologist's office, who instructed her to go to a drugstore and buy a glucose monitor. The doctor informed her how to check her blood sugar, and she was asked to keep track of her readings. Two consecutive readings of over 250 meant that she would need to start giving herself insulin injections immediately. The monitor showed exactly that, and she quickly learned how to give herself insulin.
Ultimately, she was finally official diagnosis of type 1 diabetes. This autoimmune disease causes the pancreas to stop producing the hormone insulin, which converts sugar in the body into energy. Without insulin, cells stop working and symptoms set in, such as extreme thirst and unexplained weight loss, as Prominski experienced.
“It was super scary. Nobody knew how this happened to me. I had no family history. But I had all the classic symptoms of type 1 diabetes, even though I was performing at such a high level,” she says.
After she was diagnosed, her life changed tremendously. “I was doing a crazy amount of testing and a minimum of 4-5 insulin shots a day,” she says, to help manage her blood sugar.
A few years later, she bought a continuous glucose monitor that made keeping track of her blood sugar much easier. “It gives me readings every five minutes and shows the trends of how my blood sugar is drifting up or shooting down,” she says.
Knowing that her blood sugar was being monitored at all times gave her the freedom to get back to performing. “I started to feel like myself again. I had been in so much pain and had so many injuries that it made me lose my love of dance. But once I got on insulin, I felt so much better," she says. "I realized: I do want to dance! This cloud parted, and I got myself healed."
Now living in New York City with Max, she started auditioning for Broadway shows. In May 2018, she had a son. “Thankfully, [diabetics] can have children and can do it in a healthful way," she says.
Prominski has also found comfort and support in the type 1 diabetes community. “When I finally got a diagnosis, I found other people who also had this diagnosis,” she recalls. “I found others to connect with who were such wonderful resources to discuss what I was going through, and if my symptoms were normal." One group in particular, Beyond Type 1, was a big source of support.
“Having diabetes today, some people are still embarrassed. But there’s no reason to be,” says Prominski. “I was at the playground with my son recently, and a dad came over. He had seen my glucose monitor, and he told me his 2-year-old daughter had just been diagnosed. There is so much solidarity and understanding."
She now teaches ballet classes, and her heart jumps whenever one of her students opens up about having diabetes. “Young dancers see me, and they see that I’ve made it, and that I have diabetes, too,” she says.
Looking back at her journey—from the first worrisome symptoms to diagnosis and treatment—Katelyn realizes that her most important move was to be her own advocate. She encourages others will be their own advocates as well.
“I had the telltale signs," she says. "If you’re not satisfied with the answers you’re being given, keep searching. Go to a different doctor. Go to a different type of doctor. If you know in your heart something is wrong, don’t stop searching.”
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