Upon diagnosis with type 1 diabetes (T1D), the disease immediately teaches you that your pancreas isn’t just this corn on the cob–shaped organ sitting behind your stomach. The insulin produced by this organ is crucial to metabolizing food, feeding your cells, and keeping you alive. When you’re diagnosed, you learn how to test your blood sugar and inject carefully calculated insulin doses, and about the delicate dance of food, exercise, and blood sugar. This learning curve is steep and immediate. Your life depends on your ability to understand these core concepts, and once you’re ejected back into your “normal life,” T1D returns with you.
But that’s just the tip of what T1D teaches. What you learn overall, as a person with T1D or as a loved one who cares for someone with T1D, touches so many aspects of your life other than the food on your plate or the insulin in your syringe. Living with T1D, in any capacity, gives a perspective and insight that doesn’t live within the box of T1D.
It can also teach us less tangible, more lifelong lessons, like how to be brave, how to persevere, and how to appreciate.
Samantha Stevens, 23, was diagnosed with T1D at age five, and she is grateful for some aspects of her diagnosis. “It’s taught me to have patience when I’m at my wit’s end, and to appreciate the small victories in life. It puts things in perspective in a way that people without type 1 diabetes, or any chronic health issue, don’t have the privilege to do.” Because Samantha was diagnosed so young, her life has always included T1D, and she grappled with some very adult issues earlier than most kids. “To face such a great challenge at such a young age was a burden, but it also taught me to face adversity head on and handle obstacles with grace. And, perhaps most importantly, my type 1 diabetes reminds me every day that I’m not perfect, that life can be unpredictable, and every once in a while you deserve to say, ‘Screw this, I’m eating cake!’”
Sean Oser, diagnosed with T1D at age 17 and now the parent of a child with T1D, learns from the disease both as a patient and as a healthcare professional. “With type 1 diabetes affecting both me and my 10-year-old daughter, it teaches me the importance of partnership—with family, friends, others with diabetes, and your healthcare team. Though so much of what we do is self-managed, their help is crucial. As a physician, it reminds me that the patient and their wishes are most important, so they should be offered choices and allowed to choose, not simply told what to do, even for conditions that don’t require such close self-management. I am but a member of their team, and they are in charge.”
Kelley Crumpler, RN, CDE, also lives with T1D. The disease has taught her the power of education and positively influenced her career choices. “T1D has taught my husband [also living with T1D] and I that our voices can really make a difference, that we can change perceptions of others, states of mind, and general outlooks on life. It helps us propel forward both as diabetologists and people with diabetes.”
Type 1 diabetes teaches so much to the people whose bodies play host to it, but it also touches the lives of those who care for us, and take care of us. What does T1D teach the caregivers of people with the disease?
Meri Schumacher is the mother of four boys, three of whom live with T1D. For her, the glass remains half full. “Having three boys diagnosed so young with type 1 diabetes has brought our family closer and given us a clearer understanding of our strength and resilience. We have found that within each of us is an enduring spirit that can make a beautiful life even when hard things are before us all the live-long day. Because we have conquered the hardest days, and not only survived but thrived, we have been able to embrace the perspective that we have bad days … not a bad life.”
But it’s not just the parents of people with T1D who are impacted by this disease. The lives of friends and loved ones are also shaped by T1D. Leanne Noonan’s husband, Ryan, has been living with T1D for 22 years. “I am confident in my abilities to stay calm in intense situations, and advocate and maneuver my way through a doctor’s appointment or emergency-room visit when it is clear that I have more knowledge of type 1 diabetes than the doctor I am speaking to.” Leanne has learned more than just the healthcare ropes of T1D―it’s also added a layer of strength to her marriage.
“Type 1 diabetes has made us both more aware of good nutrition,” says Peter Graffeo, husband to Karen, who has lived with T1D for 33 years. “Before I met Karen, I didn’t think about things like glycemic index and watching carb counts. I’ve also learned that while sugary treats were banned when Karen was first diagnosed, they are now OK in moderation, and this helps me think about my dessert portions as well.”
Kate Boylan, diagnosed with T1D at age four, has learned that there’s no stopping her. “Type 1 diabetes is a constant pain in the rear, with tomfoolery and trickery around every turn. Despite that, T1D has taught me to be prepared and, therefore, seemingly outsmart and come through even the lowest of lows and highest of highs in situations of physical and emotional stress. Because of living with T1D, I feel as though I am a better, more compassionate, and generally healthy and joyful person. T1D has taught me to champion, challenge, and relish each and every day.”
Type 1 diabetes can help us see food in new ways, and places a value on exercise that’s more than just weight management. T1D teaches us to see the little things as truly little, and to celebrate every victory we can. It teaches spouses to count carbs, and the power of a juice box as “medicine” in a hypoglycemic moment. It teaches parents of kids with T1D what a full night’s sleep really means. It teaches the friends of people with T1D that you can’t ever have too many snacks in your glove compartment!
And in return, we teach T1D that we will never give up and that we’ll continue to live well―with, despite, or because of it.