Santos Dives Head First Into Biggest Battle
Story by Shelby Lanksbury—Sports Information
The Chico State baseball team is tied with Cal State San Marcos in the top of the third inning. A screaming line drive rockets off the bat of a San Marcos hitter directly toward third base. Instantly, Wildcats third baseman Cameron Santos goes horizontal. Focused entirely on the ball, and not the fast-approaching turf, he stretches his glove hand out and makes an incredible diving catch to end the inning and preserve the tie. The jarring collision with the dirt that follows rattles Santos, as well as a pump and monitor attached to his lower back. However, in that moment, with the game on the line, the pumps are the last thing on Santos’ mind.
Life hit a line drive right at him in his athletic prime. But he’s diving head first into the challenge. After all, that is the only way Santos knows how to compete.
The 21-year-old from San Ramon, California, is one of the top hitters in the nation on one of the top teams in the nation. He leads the 4th-ranked Wildcats in batting average, runs batted in, triples, and stolen bases. Off the field, the business administration major with an emphasis in management is a member of Chico State’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and takes part in giving back to the community with canned food drives, community cleanups, elementary school fundraisers, and the like.
Santos appears to be living the college dream. But few outside of his family, friends, and Wildcat family know that Santos is in the midst of a painstaking battle that he will endure for rest of his life. It is a battle with his own body—the machine he relentlessly trains every day to maintain the fitness and athleticism he needs to compete at an elite level. Although he does everything he can to keep it healthy, it is failing him. It is failing in such a way that it has changed every aspect of Santos’ life.
On October 10, 2016, Santos’ roommate and teammate Andrew Carrillo took him to the emergency room at Chico’s Enloe Medical Center. The days prior to his visit to the ER were frightening. Overwhelming, abnormal feelings of fatigue swept over his body, and at times he was incoherent.
“I had a feeling something wasn’t right,” Santos said. “Nothing that I did would make the fatigue go away and my body had never felt like that before. I knew something was wrong.”
His symptoms worsened as school and baseball season picked up and his schedule reached a high intensity. Santos found himself waking up constantly in the middle of the night.
“It got to a point where I was waking up every 30 minutes to use the restroom or drink water because I felt so dehydrated,” Santos said. “And then one day after morning weights I felt really out of it and took myself to the [Student] Health Center, where they ran a few blood tests, and told me to get it checked out further.”
That is when Carrillo drove Santos to the emergency room, where the staff conducted more blood work and discovered that his blood sugar levels were at a skyrocketing 740 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). According to the American Diabetes Association, the average individual’s blood sugar commonly rests somewhere around 70-140 mg/dL depending on when the last meal was consumed. Comparing these numbers to Santos’ numbers, it was evident to the doctors that something was failing.
After some examination of where his blood sugar levels had been for the preceding two months, the doctors had a diagnosis for Santos: type 1 diabetes. His pancreas was not producing any insulin and therefore his body was unable to balance out the elevation of sugar in his blood following eating or ingesting carbohydrates.
“The doctors explained to me that although this was a disheartening situation, that I was lucky to have escaped the chance of having a diabetic seizure earlier that morning during weight training, because my numbers were so high that it seemed like that should have happened to me,” Santos said. “I got lucky, and now every time I think about what I’m dealing with, I always remind myself that it could be so much worse.”
Type 1 and type 2 diabetes are unique in their own ways. According to the American Diabetes Association, type 1 diabetics, like Santos, account for about 5 out of every 100 diabetics and are commonly diagnosed when the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the insulin producing cells in the pancreas, triggering type 1 to occur. Type 2 on the other hand is multifactorial and is caused by a combination of genes and lifestyle characteristics like obesity and inactivity. The main difference is that type 1 diabetics are not capable of making insulin, whereas type 2 patients become resistant to it.
The diagnosis has changed the way Santos goes about his day-to-day life. But slowly he began to master how to keep his blood sugar levels in balance. Now, he watches what he eats, carb counts at every meal, and gives himself insulin after each meal. Santos must check his blood sugar levels five to six times a day to ensure they aren’t too high or too low. Although he is doing increasingly better than a few months ago, he still finds himself falling too low about two or three times a week when he puts off a meal or gives himself too much insulin. When that happens, he becomes shaky and sometimes experiences tunnel vision and feels close to passing out.
Santos has discovered that these are easily fixed with foods and drinks that are high in sugar like juices or candy bars. These changes have been difficult to become proficient at. However, with his team in mind and his love for the game, Santos made it his goal not to let diabetes change the way he performs on the diamond. Because of his high spirits, his coaches and teammates sometimes forget that he is even dealing with a disease.
“Cam has always been a high-energy ‘fire plug’ for the team,” Head Coach Dave Taylor said. “And we still know that we are going to get great things out of him every day. This illness has just made him stronger and made him work a little harder to maintain his body and level of athleticism.”
Santos is doing just that. In order to adjust to his diagnosis, he has modified his routines on the field to accommodate his new way of life. The good news is that exercise has been shown to help stabilize blood glucose levels, according to the American Diabetes Association. And Santos gets plenty.
The sport of baseball is physically and mentally demanding for even a completely healthy collegiate athlete. A nine-inning game can last three hours, and a doubleheader more than six. The game requires complete focus throughout. Santos has to be proactive in keeping his levels balanced in order to give his best effort.
When he’s on the field, Santos always has a source of sugar in his back pocket.
“My go-to items are Skittles, gum, or even a bar that I can snack on mid-game in order to keep myself at an adequate level,” Santos said. “The worst thing would be if I started feeling low while on the field or at bat. My head wouldn’t be in the right place.”
In addition to the snacks, doctors have given Santos two medical devices to wear on his lower back every day. One is an insulin pump and the other a glucose monitor. Together, these instruments constantly measure his blood sugar levels and provide him with insulin when he needs it.
“Over time I’ve become really used to them on my back,” Santos explains. “There have been times where I have been tagged there, and sometimes when I dive they come loose and fall off. I just replace them when I can, and they keep doing their job.”
Despite these factors, Santos has made it clear that he doesn’t plan on letting his diabetes get in the way of his success. Tuesday night at the California Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament Awards Banquet, Santos was named the CCAA Player of the Year. He led the conference in batting average, on-base percentage, triples, and stolen bases.
Santos’ year has been equal parts tremendous and trying.
“It’s easy to see what he has done on the field and be in awe,” Taylor said. “But what is even more incredible is the person he is becoming. I can’t say enough about his leadership and what he brings to the team before, during, and after practice every day.”
“He will probably be the first guy in the program’s history to be a captain for three years,” he said. “And that’s just another sign of his leadership. He gets out there every day and doesn’t even act like much is wrong with him.”
Santos says his situation and his teammate Andru Cardenas’ situation have taught him and the rest of the team a lot about life. Cardenas, who started the first 26 games across the infield from Santos at second base, is in a battle of his own. He was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a rare disorder in which your body’s immune system attacks your nerves. But his off-field support continues to help propel the Wildcats’ in each game. The conference’s coaches made Cardenas a Second Team All-CCAA selection for his strong play during the first half of the season.
“I’ve learned a lot from this so far,” Santos said. “My situation, and even more so with things going on with Andru right now, have taught me that things can change in the blink of an eye and the next thing you know everything could be different for the rest of your life.”
Santos had been reticent to discuss his disease. But he is beginning to see that telling his story could encourage other young people facing the same challenge.
“It has definitely made me stronger and also more open about the disease,” Santos said. “It has me wanting to play for anyone else out there with the disease to show them—especially young athletes—that you can stay healthy and still excel at things you love to do even though it is tough to handle at times.”
Cameron Santos is fighting a battle in his body he never expected to. Life hit a line drive right at him in his athletic prime. And the fight has just begun. But he’s diving head first into the challenge. After all, that is the only way Santos knows how to compete.