Moments after Paula Aragone welcomes a guest to her Yorba Linda home, her phone chimes. She studies the screen and sucks in her breath. “See?” she says. “Here we go.” Her son’s glucose levels have stretched into the danger zone. More worrisome, he’s 2,500 miles away, potentially without access to his own alert system. After a few minutes of fret, the number returns to normal. “He’s got it,” she says, and resumes her task of making coffee.
Juan Cruz “JC” Aragone, 24, is one of only a handful of professional tennis players who suffers from Type 1 diabetes, and he’s the first diabetic to play in the U.S. Open. While it’s an all-too-common disease, the way JC’s diagnosis came about is anything but common. Tennis has dominated JC’s life since he was a little boy. Diabetes did not. “Now every day is a fight to survive,” says Paula, a board member of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
JC began playing tennis in 2002, when he was 7. That same year, in the midst of the Argentine Great Depression, Paula and her husband, Facundo Aragone, decided to abandon their Buenos Aires home and immigrate to the United States with their two sons. “We left everything behind,” Paula says. “Our families, the houses, the dogs. Everything.” Facundo gave up a thriving business. Paula had a law degree she could not use in the U.S. “We might have had a great run in the past,” she says. “But it was over.”
Tennis became a way for JC to bond with his father, who had played professionally in Europe, as well as transition to a new life.
By 12, JC was winning tournaments. At 16, he was No. 4 in the nation for junior players in his age bracket, playing twice in the U.S. Open Juniors, training full time with the U.S. Tennis Association in Florida, and traveling to international events.
But in December 2011, JC came to Paula with a common teenage complaint. He’d grown tired of battling acne. Though his case wasn’t severe, Paula wanted to honor his concerns. A dermatologist started JC on antibiotics, and he returned to Florida. Within two weeks, his skin began to blister, his head pounded, and his temperature soared to 104 degrees. He battled through a tournament until Paula ordered him home, where she barely recognized him when he got off the plane. She rushed her son—swollen, blistered, and in obvious distress—to the Placentia-Linda emergency room. He was transferred to CHOC, and then to UCLA.
JC had suffered a severe reaction to the medication; his immune system began to attack every organ the drug had touched. The condition, known as drug reaction with eosinophilia and systemic symptoms, caused his liver and both kidneys to fail. It attacked his thyroid and pancreas, enlarged his spleen, and erupted across his skin. “His heart was a disaster,” Paula says. “His body burned from the inside out.”
JC slipped into a coma. When he woke three weeks later, he faced an 18-month recovery filled with frequent setbacks and painful hurdles, including long hospitalizations, steroid treatments, and dialysis.
The crisis that led the Aragone family to the U.S. shaped the way Paula coped with JC’s ordeal and how she parented her sons. Having lost everything once before, the Aragones knew the value of perseverance and focusing on the future. She and Facundo had reinvented themselves, and they passed those skills on to their sons. “I always ask, ‘What are we doing today to build for tomorrow?’ You can look back, but that won’t let you move forward.”
Years of tennis also taught JC something about adaptation. “There are certain things that are in your control and certain things that are not in your control,” Paula says. “That’s something that came with the tennis. You can’t control what the other player is doing, but you can control what’s on your side of the court.” Whatever circumstances brought JC to this moment no longer mattered, says his mother. The key became how to handle them.
By late 2012, JC had fought his way back and returned to tennis. He posted a 19-4 singles record and a 5-1 doubles record in the 2013-14 season, and ranked as high as No. 107 nationally in singles.
But another setback was in store for JC, and this would be the one that broke Paula’s heart. While playing his first tournament since his health issues began, JC felt awful. Another blood test revealed that the ordeal over the past year had caused JC to develop Type 1 diabetes.
“It was devastating,” Paula says. “Both my husband and I were sobbing. I hadn’t cried in a year. But I knew what was coming. I knew what diabetes was.”
For JC, there was only one question: Could he still play tennis? “If I can play tennis,” he told his parents, “I can handle diabetes.”
The family began the long learning process of managing the disease while JC was playing at an elite level. Paula describes strings of sleepless nights, getting up to check her son’s glucose levels, making sure he hadn’t slipped away. She recalls a frantic text she received from JC’s iPad when he was traveling by train. He’d fallen unconscious when his levels dipped low and lost his cellphone.
Today she worries from a distance as he travels the world and she increases her involvement with JDRF. But she’s careful not to show her stress.
Eternally optimistic, Paula focuses on the good things that came with the disease.
JC now had college on his mind. His impressive academic record, in addition to his athletic achievements and unique story, led to numerous offers and scholarships around the country, including several close to home. But JC opted to attend the University of Virginia, where he played the No. 5 position on the tennis team and helped the school win three consecutive national championships.
“It was devastating. Both my husband and I were sobbing. I hadn’t cried in a year. But I knew what was coming. I knew what diabetes was.”
College also landed him an internship and an eventual job offer at JPMorgan Chase. JC struggled with the decision to take the lucrative post or continue pursuing a professional tennis career. For Paula, the answer was obvious. “Follow your dream,” she told him. “You can always go back to work, but you’ll never be able to relive this part of your life.” He decided to give tennis one year.
Just a few months later, something happened at the U.S. Open. Although he wasn’t even in the field of 128 players in the qualifying round, he won the wild card and went on to defeat Marco Cecchinato, Riccardo Bellotti, and Akira Santillan to secure a spot in the main draw of the 2017 U.S. Open, where he lost to seeded player Kevin Anderson.
Diabetes is a difficult disease to control, but for professional athletes, it presents unique and often dangerous challenges. Adrenaline causes glucose levels to spike, so several insulin injections could be necessary during a tournament. “High glucose levels make your body hurt,” Paula says. “The glucose runs wild in your body, and the muscles don’t absorb it.” At one point, JC suffered stress fractures on his ribs from intense tennis and diabetes.
All this was new to the U.S. Open, which had never had a diabetic player compete before. Long considered an enhancement drug, insulin use wasn’t permitted during competition. “We had to fight them,” Paula says. “They wouldn’t let him play with insulin—it wasn’t acceptable. We submitted the paperwork and got approval the day before he was scheduled to play.”
For Paula, the challenge became finding the balance between managing her son’s condition without managing his life. “How many adults are the reason their kids didn’t go for more?” she says. “Parents have so many expectations but also so many fears. They often don’t urge their kids to shoot for the stars because they’re afraid. Encourage your kids to go live their lives.”
Fear isn’t a word in the Aragone vocabulary. Neither is complaint. “I’m not going to enable my son to complain,” Paula says. “He has his liver, two kidneys, two legs, and he’s where he wants to be. Now he has a platform to change other people’s lives.”
Since 2014, Paula has been involved with the Orange County Chapter of JDRF, which funds research for Type 1 diabetes, and she has been on the board since 2017. JC serves as an ambassador. Their goal is to empower kids, showing them what’s possible despite the limits they might feel. “Diabetics can be astronauts, doctors, athletes, singers,” Paula says. “Yes, it takes 10 times more work and dedication, but you realize you aren’t a victim. You can still shine. These are your circumstances, but you can be an example for others.”
In March, Paula co-chaired the annual JDRF Gala, which raised more than $1.1 million. That same evening, JC received an award and a $100,000 grant to help him in pursuit of his professional career. JC wasted no time hustling from Indian Wells to Laguna Niguel to help his mother. “When your mom calls, you show up,” he joked from the stage.
Just as Paula continues to show up for her son.
Dexcom, the 5G mobile device system JC uses, constantly tracks glucose levels and sends real-time alerts to a diabetic’s smart device. In this photo, JC shows the device.
JDRF is the leading global organization funding Type 1 diabetes research, investing more than $2 billion toward research since its inception in 1970.
The annual JDRF One Walk will be held Nov. 3 at Angel Stadium in Anaheim.
For more information, go to jdrf.org.