Go Givers – Leslie Burkhalter

Go Givers – Leslie Burkhalter

On November 18, 1999 Leslie Burkhalter’s life changed forever.

She noticed that her son Tyler, 11, had lost five pounds and was constantly thirsty, symptoms she recognized from his friend Ben who was diagnosed with Juvenile Diabetes Type 1 (JD1) two years earlier.

Burkhalter took Tyler straight to his pediatrician, where an abnormal blood sugar test landed him in Wolfson Children’s Hospital. Tyler was hospitalized four days, the family learned to manage his diabetes and the fifth grader returned to San Jose Episcopal Day School on Monday.

“After his diagnosis we tried to keep everything normal for Tyler, but diabetics must constantly check blood sugar levels by finger prick  and inject insulin three to eight times depending on meals and exercise levels…life is far from normal,” Burkhalter said.

JD1 is an autoimmune disease that causes the pancreas to stop producing or to resist insulin, a hormone required to process sugar. Diabetes strikes all ages; researchers have worked since the 1960s to find a cure. It can cause vision loss, heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney disease, amputation and long term complications.

Burkhalter’s 25-year banking career and her husband P.J.’s job as president of the 85-year-old family business, Burkhalter Wrecking, had to accommodate their new reality; Tyler’s JD1. Everywhere Tyler went, to school, sports or activities, the supervising adults had to understand his needs: to test sugar levels, inject insulin, have snacks or juice.

“I became a volunteer advocate for Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) after Tyler’s best friend was diagnosed. With Tyler’s diagnosis, I became an even more involved, passionate volunteer fundraiser for research to find a cure and to educate others about diabetes,” Burkhalter said.

JDRF’s national network of advocates is dedicated to curing JD1, and is the largest nonprofit funder of diabetes research in the world. Their goal to prevent or find a cure for the disease includes developing therapies and products to control blood sugar, treat or reverse complications and improve life for diabetics.

A T-shirt with photos of son Tyler and daughter Casey

A T-shirt with photos of son Tyler and daughter Casey

In 2003 Burkhalter’s daughter Casey, 10, was diagnosed with JD1. A few months later, she was also diagnosed with Celiac Disease, another autoimmune disease linked to JD1. Celiac Disease (CD) is damage to the small intestine and its lining caused by gluten; celiac patients require a strict non-gluten diet.

“I felt shot through my heart when Casey was diagnosed, but it confirmed my commitment to JD1 education and research funding, not just for my children, but for all diabetics,” Burkhalter said. “In 2006 Casey was among the first patients to wear a Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) as part of a clinical study to develop an artificial pancreas to control blood sugar: the closest thing to a cure since the discovery of insulin in 1921. The CGM monitors fluctuations and sounds an alarm if food or insulin is needed.”

Burkhalter travels often to the University of Florida in Gainesville and to Tallahassee State offices. She meets with legislators in Washington, D.C.  to lobby for for The Special Diabetes Program, which Congress must renew annually. The $150M program is credited with developing artificial pancreas technology to manage blood sugar. She also supports Trial Net, a global network of researchers working to prevent, delay or reverse the progression of JD1. She speaks at public events, answers questions internationally online for JDRF and spearheads advocacy.

The Burkhalters have been interviewed extensively by local, regional and national media:  newspaper articles, television appearances and in advertisements. Often they are joined in their volunteer efforts by her mother, Judy Beatrice and mother-in-law Ann Burkhalter, formerly of Ortega.

Leslie Burkhalter and her mother Judy Beatrice

Leslie Burkhalter and her mother Judy Beatrice

As a mentor for newly diagnosed children and their families, Burkhalter readily shares her encyclopedic knowledge of diabetes, research and new advances and has been repeatedly honored for her volunteerism. The JDRF has commended her strength, character and unending volunteer work to help find the cure for diabetes.

Burkhalter is a registered jeweler who has worked for Underwood’s Jewelers in Avondale for 10 years and praised owner Clayton Bromberg and staff for their support and contributions to JDRF.  She also works part-time as a Clinical Research Coordinator for the University of Florida.

She and husband P.J. just celebrated 28 years of marriage and volunteer side-by-side in support of JDRF. They support breast cancer causes, Epilepsy Foundation, Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) research and volunteer for United Community Outreach Ministry (UCOM) food bank. They are members of Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church.

Avid Jaguars ticket holders since 1995, the family rarely misses a game and also cheers for Florida State University. Casey and her dad are dirt bike enthusiasts and Tyler is musical, playing several instruments. P.J. is the designated dog walker for their Dalmatians, Italian Greyhound and Rat Terrier; Leslie speed-walks, crafts jewelry and practices retail therapy.

Tyler, now 25, and Casey, 21, both University of North Florida students, work part-time jobs and are doing well. They frequently volunteer for JDRF with their parents.

For more information about National Diabetes Month (November) activities and events including free screenings and a photo contest go to www.ufdiabetes.org. JDRF information on activities, monthly and annual events are available at NorthFlorida.jdrf.org. Trial Net information: www.trialnet.diabetes.ufl.edu. To volunteer as an advocate go to Advocacy.JDRF.org.

By Julie Kerns Garmendia
Resident Community News

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