Kelly: Ex-Husker Rik Bonness' sons strike a balance living with diabetes

Omahans Eric and Beau Bonness in 2003. Eric told a Senate panel that it was scary to have Type 1 diabetes himself “but it's even worse to watch my little brother suffer with diabetes.”

Teenage brothers from Omaha sat side by side in Washington, D.C., 10 years ago and testified before a Senate committee.

The topic: Research funding and hopes for a cure for juvenile (Type 1) diabetes.

Eric Bonness was 18 and Beau Bonness was 15. As The World-Herald reported, they looked “for all the world like normal teenagers — hip, bright and lean — but they're not.”

That's because they coped daily with Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease in which the pancreas stops producing insulin.

Beau was diagnosed at age 4, and Eric at 10.

As men, they are still hip, bright and lean, but they are more than coping. They are excelling.

They haven't allowed the rigors of their so-far incurable disease — a daunting and often frustrating balancing act of exercise, food intake and insulin injections — to hold them back.

Dr. Eric Bonness, 28, is now a resident orthopedic physician in Omaha. Beau Bonness, 25, is a budding actor in Los Angeles, and has picked up roles in film, TV shows and commercials.

“I like to live vicariously through him,” quipped Eric, adding that he has joshed his brother about his cool-guy publicity photo.

“Absolutely. How could you not tease him about that?”

Beau's appearance in an episode of TV's “Mistresses” drew Internet chatter in the Type 1 community.

“It was a fairly small role,” he said, “but the reason it got so much attention is because Eric took it upon himself to declare before it aired that I was the star of the show. That quickly got a lot of hits on Facebook.”

This week Eric is visiting Beau in Los Angeles, where they will tease each other as they always have. And, as always, talk some about their mutual battle.

Type 1, also referred to as T1D, afflicts adults as well as children — as many as 3 million Americans. My own daughter was diagnosed 11 years ago at age 25.

Each year, about 15,000 children and 15,000 adults in the U.S. are diagnosed with Type 1. Researchers say the causes are genetic as well as environmental, but not related to diet.

Type 1 is sometimes confused with the more common Type 2 diabetes, which is characterized by insulin resistance in the body.

The Bonness brothers and their parents long have been active in JDRF, which once stood for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. But because 85 percent of Americans with Type 1 diabetes today are not juveniles, having grown to adulthood with the disease or were diagnosed as adults, the organization has dropped the long name and goes only by the initials.

Forbes magazine last year rated JDRF one of the top five charities in the world for its efficiency and effectiveness. On Saturday, the Omaha-Council Bluffs chapter holds its annual Walk for a Cure.

Starting at 9 a.m. at Lewis & Clark Landing on the Missouri River, about 4,500 people will rally around loved ones with team names such as Alyssa's Angels, Brynn's Believers, Becky's Blue Bandits and Wyatt's Warriors.

Through pledges, the goal is to raise $775,000 for research.

Eric and Beau Bonness have attended summer walks and winter fundraising galas in Omaha most of their lives. It's all with the goal that some day, researchers will find a cure.

The brothers' moment on the national stage came during the 2003 JDRF Children's Congress, which they attended with about 200 other Type 1 youths from around the country. The pair testified before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

Eric told senators it was scary enough to have the disease himself “but it's even worse to watch my little brother suffer with diabetes.”

Recalling the event, Eric said this week: “I felt proud to be able to represent everyone there and around the country, and to tell the story with the hope that it would make a difference. It's always good to surround yourself with others going through the same thing. You feel alone a majority of the time.”

With a Type 1 diagnosis, blood-sugar levels get out of whack. If they consistently run high, it can lead to loss of eyesight or limbs or to kidney failure and dialysis. Too low can mean passing out into a coma or even death.

The goal is to keep blood sugars as close to normal as possible, and new technology has helped. But doing so remains an unpredictable process. There are so many variables.

Since its founding in 1970, JDRF has raised more than $1.7 billion for research, some of which has produced advances, though there has not been a “eureka” moment to defeat the disease. But the goal is not merely a cure but also improving lives “until Type One becomes Type None.”

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Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

Research is progressing on several fronts, including on a closed-loop system that would allow a person's insulin pump and a continuous glucose monitor to work together automatically.

Even with new technology, people with Type 1 must still prick their fingers frequently to confirm that their blood-sugar readings are not at dangerous levels.

While shooting scenes, Beau said he always has food nearby in case he needs to eat something to keep his blood sugars from dropping. If he starts to feel queasy, he said, he wonders if it's just nervousness from being on a set or it's his diabetes affecting him.

Eric said he thought about making his medical specialty endocrinology — a physician with Type 1, after all, would have a special understanding of diabetic patients. But he went with orthopedics, his passion.

Recently the graduate of the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha for the first time did most of the surgery — under supervision — on a knee replacement and a fractured ankle.

Half a continent away, his brother is trying to build a career as an actor.

Eric said that as they grew up together, he didn't see that coming. Beau was in high school theater at Brownell-Talbot School, where he also was twice named athlete of the year. At 6-foot-4, he went to Brandeis University in Massachusetts to play basketball.

Two hip surgeries, a torn labrum and an ankle injury curtailed his playing career, but he studied film. After graduating in 2011, he was accepted at law schools.

“It seemed kind of a logical next step,” Beau said. “My father is a lawyer, my mother is a doc and now my brother is a doc.”

The father is Omaha attorney Rik Bonness, an All-America football lineman at Nebraska in the 1970s who won a Super Bowl ring with the Oakland Raiders. The mother is Dr. Shannon Bonness, an anesthesiologist now living in Los Angeles.

Beau put law school on hold, though, and headed to Hollywood to pursue his own passion. He has gone to a lot of auditions and learned not to take rejections personally.

He is scheduled to appear Wednesday in the TV soap opera “Days of Our Lives.”

Becoming an actor and becoming a surgeon are long, slow processes. So are finding cures for dreaded diseases, including Type 1 diabetes.

“I think it's inevitable,” Beau said.

Eric, viewing it as a physician, said he's glad that research is moving forward on multiple fronts. “I'm more optimistic, hearing things that make sense.”

Even living far from each other, the brothers still face their Type 1 diabetes, so to speak, side by side. The decade since they testified before Congress has seen technological advances and hopeful research toward a cure.

Some things haven't changed. Whether teasing each other or sharing their burden, they are as close as brothers can be.

“I know I need to check my sugars continually,” Eric said, “and I always make sure Beau does, too. I'm always on him about that.”

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