Max Domi

The invisible opponent

By Shaun McMahon

When the clock struck midnight on the Montreal Canadiens' most recent postseason run, it was unlike any other exit in the club's history. Rather than skating off to the appreciative applause of the Montreal faithful, instead, it was an unconventionally quiet curtain call from within a manufactured bubble marked by empty stands in Toronto.

"I hated it," said NHL star and Type 1 diabetes advocate Max Domi with a laugh.

The 25-year-old son of long-time NHLer Tie Domi lives for the crowds and the energy that seems to cascade all the way down from the cheap seats. It's a fire that rages deep within his competitive heart. That energy drives him, because hockey is in his blood.

Therein lies the irony that his blood is also the very thing that has thrown hurdles in his path to stardom since the age of 12. Like roughly 300,000 Canadians, Domi lives with Type 1 diabetes, but decided early on to never let adversity stand in his way.

"The test of your character is how you handle the tough times and the way you come out on the other end. Despite the bump in the road, I'm here now," said Domi.

That number of Type 1 diabetics seems to be increasing every year in Canada, faster than the global average, and experts don't seem to know exactly why. For now, there's still no cure, but there's hope.

"There have been some very important breakthroughs recently in cure and prevention research — and I believe we are on the cusp of many more," projected Dr. Sarah Linklater, Chief Scientific Officer of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation of Canada.

Type 1 diabetes causes insulin-producing cells in the pancreas (called beta cells) to be destroyed through autoimmunity. When beta cells are destroyed, a person can no longer make enough of their own insulin to regulate their blood sugar, and they need to take insulin by injection or pump to stay alive. It's like facing off against an opponent you can't see.

One can never be too careful when dealing with Type 1 diabetes, which is exactly why Domi briefly hit pause this past summer to evaluate the risks of returning to play in the face of COVID-19.

"All along I wanted to play, obviously, but I didn't know how to handle the next steps as I wasn't sure how my body would react being a Type 1 diabetic and with my immune system being a little bit more at risk than someone else," said Domi.

After extensive medical consultations and careful reflection, Domi laced up his skates and trusted the process, while never underestimating the condition he's lived with for nearly half of his lifetime. "There's zero time off and you can't make any decisions without first thinking about it," said Domi. "There's always your Type 1 diabetes. It just doesn't sleep."

Turns out, parents of Type 1 diabetics don't seem to sleep much either.

"There are times when I can't reach him and that pit in the stomach comes, like, I hope he's OK," said mother Leanne Domi, who lights up when she talks about Max. "You always want to know that there's someone around to help them if they can't. That's my biggest fear, even though he's a 25-year-old living on his own. I always worry. I'm a mom."

Ms. Domi still vividly remembers her son's first school trip after the diagnosis. She drove out to the facility where Max and his classmates were biking on outdoor trails. She hung back, terrified. "Nobody knew I was there," she recalled, able to smile about it now.

"It was always this balancing act of, you know, being there to support him and protect him, but let him be who he needed to be. And let me tell you, it was probably the most challenging thing that his dad and I ever experienced," she added.

Unfortunately, there were a number of challenges for the Domi family at the time, but the support for Max never wavered

"I think [his diagnosis] came at a time when our family was going through a fair amount of stress with the breakdown of our family. So it was a difficult time to begin with," said Ms. Domi, referring to past relationship struggles with now ex-husband Tie. "I was determined to make sure that [Max] didn't lose any of the enthusiasm for life and all of his dreams and his goals."

"It's stressful, it's a lot of pressure on your family. There's a lot of ups and downs, a lot of mood swings," said Domi, who calls for more focus on how Type 1 diabetes can impact the mental health of a young person.

In fact, according to a recent study by the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) and the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ), young people with Type 1 diabetes are three times more likely to attempt suicide and up to 1.5 times more likely to suffer from a mood disorder like depression.

As for Domi, he mainly remembers just wanting to fit in as a teenager doing typical teenager things, but even that wasn't always easy.

"When you're pulling out a needle at a table with all your buddies, you're doing something that no one else really is," said Domi. "I just, I didn't like the extra attention. I had a lot of that with my father being Tie Domi in the city of Toronto, so any time that I could not get that extra added attention of being his son, I would take advantage of that."

With the benefit of hindsight, Domi admits that it became much easier to navigate his feelings once he was able to open up. That took some time, but once he found his voice, he made it his mission to share his message of hope and support with others who may be faced with the same fate.

That journey to advocacy eventually led Domi to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, a perfect partnership that sparked the creation of the Max Domi Fund for Type 1 Diabetes. The fund focuses on supporting young people living with Type 1 diabetes, exploring how to help those struggling with mental health, and helping to make sure that Canadians living with it have access to life-saving technology.

"Technology is revolutionizing daily life for many people with Type 1 diabetes — improving quality of life, health outcomes, and even saving lives in some cases," added Dr. Linklater. "Technology is developing so quickly — we are going to see better, more sophisticated systems coming to the market soon, which is exciting."

Domi says technology is a huge part of keeping his life on track and he adores the continuous glucose monitoring system that helps to keep his levels in check. However, it takes more than one clever device to achieve the balance he needs. Domi also uses every bit of innovation he can to improve his sleep, he meditates regularly and keeps a keen eye on his nutrition with the help of a personal chef, which he feels blessed to have because he also suffers from celiac disease.

Oh, and then there's Orion.

"He's smarter than I am, it's insane," joked Domi of his diabetic-alert dog. Orion sits proudly beside him on the cover of his 2019 book, No Days Off: My Life with Type 1 Diabetes and Journey to the NHL, which also helped to raise important funds for the JDRF.

"We've been through quite a bit together," said Domi of his talented Labrador Retriever, whose specially-trained sniffer can detect potentially life-threatening changes to his blood sugar levels. "He's my best buddy and I don't know where I'd be without him."

From his dog to his diet, it's remarkable to see how Domi has done virtually everything in his power to stay safe and stable for more than a decade. But the reality is that as a pro athlete with Type 1 diabetes, his entire life is a moving target. Add in the unpredictability of an ongoing pandemic and frankly, the future is anybody's guess. So what's next?

"I'm just trying to get in the best shape I've been in my career and I'll be ready to go," said Domi, who always seems ready for whatever challenges come his way.

Domi often likes to say that he feels pretty lucky. Not bad for a guy with the number 13 on his back.


Fall 2020, Vol 12 N°4

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Fall 2020
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