After two and a half hours of waiting at the hospital, Ashten Smith-Gooden’s parents stepped away from their 7-year-old child to confront the doctor. They readied themselves for the worst the doctor could tell them, wondering not if there would be bad news to share, but just how bad the news was.
For a couple of days, Smith-Gooden had been overcome by an insatiable thirst, and it only appeared to be getting worse. When bed-wetting became a problem, her parents took her to the family pediatrician. When Smith-Gooden’s parents didn’t see the doctor again for a couple of hours, they started to grow increasingly concerned that something was seriously wrong. Then, upon his return, he diagnosed Smith-Gooden with Type I juvenile diabetes, a condition that would follow the Cal volleyball player for the rest of her life.
The doctor explained that Smith-Gooden was sick because she had ketoacidosis, a condition diabetics get when they run low on insulin. She would have to be put on a strict regimen of insulin right away to control her blood sugar.
“My mom started crying, and my dad’s face — you could tell he was trying to think of something to do,” Smith-Gooden says.
Then, their focus shifted back to Smith-Gooden, who didn’t quite comprehend the weight of being a diabetic yet. Teary and grief-stricken a moment ago, her parents were now fully engaged, trying to absorb as much information as they could from the doctor. They bombarded him with question after question, all with one goal: discovering how their daughter would live as normal a life as possible.
“When she got it, we all got it,” says Smith-Gooden’s mother, Teri.
For a 7 year old thrown into the world of a serious medical condition, Smith-Gooden transitioned to life as a diabetic with little complaint or resistance. Diabetics must maintain a lifestyle with a healthy diet and exercise in addition to administering insulin when necessary. Failure to do so could lead to Smith-Gooden losing her eyesight, organs and possibly even limbs. Although she tired of receiving the shots over the coming weeks, she trusted her parents that the insulin would make her feel better. When she was old enough to understand the full weight of her condition, she understood she needed it, or she would run the risk of serious health issues.
“Of all negative situations, (my parents) find a way to make it positive,” Smith-Gooden says. “For example, if I was the type of kid to sulk and eat whatever, then I would be depressed. They find ways for me to be normal. They make it so that there’s no difference between me and you. They kept me going no matter what I was doing.”
When she was 10, she started wearing an insulin pump day round, a device that enables her to check her blood sugar and administer insulin much more easily than the traditional method does. She realized how much easier it makes her life when she broke it, on one occasion, playing volleyball. The device enables her to check her blood-sugar levels at all times, including matches when her blood sugar levels are most at risk to change. It also lets her check how much insulin to take after every meal, allowing her to administer it much with ease.
But no matter how much they wanted her to live a normal life, her parents found it difficult to tell their child she had to take multiple shots every day and couldn’t have sweets.
On one occasion, when Smith-Gooden was 12, her two best friends went to Disneyland and kept it a secret from her. When Smith-Gooden asked her friends about it, they said their parents didn’t want her there because they didn’t want to handle a child with diabetes.
“It really broke her heart, because we could have been there in the park,” Teri says. “And if there was an issue, we could have been there for her. That really was an eye opener for her, I think, and it really hurt her. She still talks about that to this day.”
To continue running track, Smith-Gooden and her parents constantly checked her blood sugar. That habit carried on when Smith-Gooden started playing volleyball when she was 13. Managing her diabetes has to stay on her mind during matches, and her mom even aids with that by flashing hand signals from the stands to remind her to check her blood sugar.
Smith-Gooden has lived as normal a life as possible, thanks to her family. Her parents didn’t want the diabetes to restrict her in any way. Even when she was first diagnosed, the thought of making her quit track, a sport that could lead to dramatic drops and rises in blood glucose levels, didn’t cross their mind once.
Teri made her children play a sport to keep them busy in addition to keeping them healthy. And when she wanted to quit track because she tired of running, Smith-Gooden turned to volleyball at the advice of her brother, Jordan.
When she first started playing volleyball in the eighth grade, Smith-Gooden practiced flys, a shot similar to a layup, with Jordan, a college basketball player, to improve. A couple of years later, when she accepted a volleyball scholarship to UC Berkeley as the No. 5 recruit in the nation, Smith-Gooden again trained with her brother in preparation for the rigors of intercollegiate athletics, as he had experience playing college basketball.
“We would just go outside and take 40 minutes, and he would help me with my footwork,” Smith-Gooden says. “I progressed from that, and he helped me with my vertical, too, during the summer right before I came out to Cal. He pushed me like he would one of his college teammates. It was just really cool to have him by my side.”
With support from all members of her family, Smith-Gooden was ready to compete in college volleyball. She proved she could compete against the best players in the nation in high-pressure games and live life at UC Berkeley as a student-athlete. As a diabetic competing at such a high level, just by playing, she passes inspiration along to diabetic children along with motivation for their hopeful parents.
The transition from having her family with her all the time to living on her own has been difficult, but that comes with the life of a student-athlete. And beyond balancing classes with practice and matches on the road, she has to deal with all the logistics of being a diabetic. Her parents would always order her insulin supply for her — because she needs it every day, forgetting to reorder could prove disastrous.
“A lot of people don’t understand Ashten’s a homebody,” Teri says. “She’s very family oriented, and right now, she’s homesick. I see her trying to be the best she can for her teammates and be the best student-athlete she can be. I admire her ’cause she’s really homesick right now.”
Smith-Gooden’s diabetes could have easily held her back and kept her from reaching the lofty achievement of playing volleyball at UC Berkeley. But her diabetes only ended up solidifying her family ties while pushing her to be better.
“A kid came in here a couple weeks ago, showed me his pump and was like, ‘I’m playing baseball,’ ” Smith-Gooden says. “It’s the little stuff that makes you feel like you can impact someone, and I realized that by embracing the fact that I’m a diabetic, I can help more people than not.”
Winston Cho covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho
A previous version of this article identified Ashten Smith-Gooden’s doctor in an unclear way.