TREMONT, Maine — Buoyed by the cheers of encouragement from supporters, the O’Donnell family of Southwest Harbor coasted into Seal Harbor and dipped their bicycle tires into the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday, marking the end of their coast-to-coast ride to raise awareness about and funds for Type 1 diabetes.
The ride was dubbed “Rebecca’s Ride” for 16-year-old Rebecca O’Donnell, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes (also known as juvenile diabetes) when she was 9 years old. With her parents, Deb and Mike, and younger brother, James, they set out from San Francisco on Memorial Day and covered about 4,400 miles.
The signs on their bicycles — such as “Riding for Diabetes” — served as calling cards that introduced them to people all across the country.
“Everyone was so nice,” Rebecca said Saturday. “[There] were so many people who have been affected by diabetes.”
There was one woman, she said, who had lost several family members to diabetes over the years.
“She just came up and gave me a big hug and said, ‘I’m so glad you’re doing this,” Rebecca said.
The O’Donnell family is an “avid” bike-riding family. In fact, this was Rebecca’s second cross-country trip by bicycle. Her parents pedaled across America when she was 3, towing her behind in a small trailer.
“I was so little I didn’t remember, and my brother wasn’t born yet,” she said. “We always said we wanted to do it again someday.”
The family has been involved in raising money for diabetes research over the years. When the effects of the recession hit The Jackson Laboratory, where Deb O’Donnell works as a facilities engineer, she saw an opportunity to combine a family trip with a fundraiser.
“Due to the economy, a lot of my capital projects had been deferred and the lab was encouraging departments to find creative ways to save money,” she said. “We’d talked about a bicycle trip — something to do as a family. This seemed like a win-win for everybody.”
The Lab approved a three-month leave of absence and the family was off, camping most of the way across the country.
The trip posed a challenge for Rebecca, who normally has to check her blood levels five or more times a day.
According to The Jackson Laboratory Web site, Type 1 diabetes is the least common — and most serious — form of diabetes. It is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks and destroys cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, the hormone required to deliver blood sugar to the cells.
During the ride, Rebecca wore a glucose monitor that tracked her sugar levels throughout the day. Although the family arranged for regular insulin deliveries along the way, she said, the exercise helped to keep her levels near normal.
“The exercise was so great. I didn’t have to use insulin during the day,” she said. “That’s the great thing about biking 50 miles a day.”
The bicycle ride has raised almost $9,000, with donations still coming in. That money will be donated to The Jackson Laboratory’s research programs.
According to Joyce Peterson, a spokeswoman for the Lab, one of the likely programs to receive funding will be that of Dr. David Serreze, whose research has focused on the mechanics of Type 1 diabetes and ways to prevent it.