Aracely Basurto was a working mother of three in Guayaquil, Ecuador, in 1993 when she noticed something seemed wrong with her daughter Andrea, then nearly two years old. Out of nowhere, the toddler was losing weight, urinating frequently and drinking ravenously from water bottles she pulled from the fridge.
A chemical pharmacist, Basurto, now 49, grew increasingly nervous that she was seeing symptoms of type 1 diabetes, in which the body is unable to produce insulin that breaks down sugars and carbohydrates. Worldwide, about 490,000 children under the age of 15 have type 1 diabetes, according to the International Diabetes Federation.
In the U.S. and other developed countries, type 1 diabetes is a serious but usually manageable condition. Patients manage their condition by injecting synthetic insulin made by pharmaceutical companies.
But in countries like Ecuador, where most people don’t have health insurance, can’t afford syringes or insulin, and lack information about how to manage the condition, type 1 diabetes can lead to disabling complications such as blindness, kidney failure, heart attacks, strokes, nerve damage and even death.
With these terrifying possibilities in mind, a frightened Basurto took Andrea for a finger prick to get her blood sugar level. She was heartbroken to learn it was well above the normal range. “The doctor told me Andrea wouldn’t live more than 3 years,” Basurto tells PEOPLE. “Every day and night, I cried.”
For two years, Basurto followed the doctor’s advice of giving Andrea a small insulin injection paired with tiny meals. “She would cry at the table because her brothers got plates of rice, plantains and chicken, but she only got milk, cheese and whole wheat crackers” Basurto says. “She was always hungry. My life was limited to caring for her.”
Despite her best efforts, Andrea’s condition worsened and she began having seizures every few weeks. “I was terrified,” Basurto says. “I thought she would die in the night. ”
A turning point came when Andrea attended a summer diabetes camp in Chile. There, Basurto learned how to properly dose Andrea with insulin and get her condition under control. “I wanted,” Basurto says, “for her to see her fifth birthday.”
Says Andrea, now 23: “After we got diabetes education, everything changed. I started to eat like my brothers. I could travel, I could play with my cousins, I could play sports. ” She has never had another seizure.
Basurto was happy for her family – but concerned about other families with children who had diabetes and weren’t as fortunate. “If they didn t have the right information, they could die,” Basurto says. “I felt very strongly that I could help teach other mothers. I didn t want them to feel alone.”
She began informally helping families and, in 2006, founded her Foundation to Live with Diabetes, FUVIDA, Fundacién Para Vivir con Diabetes. The nonprofit distributes free insulin, blood glucose testing strips and other supplies that are donated by organizations like the International Diabetes Federation‘s Life for a Child. Basurto also holds demonstrations on how to use insulin at monthly family events.
To date, Basurto has helped more than 240 Ecuadorian children with diabetes live healthy lives. “My mother is like an earthquake,” Andrea tells PEOLE. “She ll move everything to help the kids. ”
Parents say Basurto helped save their childrens’ lives. Viviana Graciani was horrified to learn her daughter Annette, then six, had type 1 diabetes – and more horrified to learn the local hospital couldn’t provide her with insulin to take home. She went to Basurto, who gave her insulin and taught her how to use it. “Aracely was with me constantly for two weeks,” Graciani says. “She s an angel.
Jonathan Ricardo Peñafiel Reyes, 23, struggled for several years after being diagnosed at 19 in 2010. A national karate and kickboxing competitor, he became a shadow of his former self, shrinking from a healthy 165 pounds to a gaunt 125. “I tried to keep competing, but I was losing too much weight and didn t have any energy,” he says. He came across Basurto by chance during a health crisis earlier this year, and now is back to 165 pounds and is once again training for a karate competition. Basurto, he says, “changed my life. I feel better. I feel strong.”
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Basurto is thrilled with stories like Reyes’s. And when she thinks back to her frightening early years with Andrea, now completing a college degree in psychology, she is grateful to have had the chance to make a difference in others’ lives as she did in her daughter’s. “Diabetes will not stop her,” Basurto says. “She has no limits.”