Diabetes Forecast

Teamwork: Banding Together to Tackle Diabetes

There really is strength in numbers. Look at these success stories

By Tracey Neithercott , ,

Good Shepherd walkers (from left) Deacon Richard Kervin, Denise Peace, Stanley Johnson, Shenekqual Robertson, Pastor D.L. DeVaull, Sharonda Wilson, and Alicia DeVaull.

What they say about groups is true: There really is strength in numbers.

Need proof? The nine teams and partners that follow have joined forces with family, friends, and even strangers with the disease and learned how to better tackle their own diabetes—and help others in the process.

Good Shepherd Baptist Church


Shenekqual Robertson understands what it's like to be overwhelmed by diabetes. She didn't take her own diagnosis of type 2 seriously until her son, Gevon Anderson, then 12, was diagnosed with type 1 in 2004. After that, she made it her mission to spread the gospel of good health to others in her community. Little did she know, a local church had a mission of its own that would change her life.

Robertson, associate manager of the American Diabetes Association's Dallas/Fort Worth office, came to Good Shepherd Baptist Church in Dallas to give a "Super Diabetes Sunday" presentation on getting healthy as a congregation.

Robertson became a church member, and the Health and Wellness Ministry she helped launch with Pastor D.L. DeVaull has grown to include nine leaders. More than 100 people in the 218-member congregation participated in the ministry's Faithfully Fit Challenge. The entire congregation helped raise money for the Good Shepherd Step Out: Walk to Stop Diabetes team by wearing sneakers to church with their Sunday best.

The outpouring of support is especially important in the African American community, says DeVaull. "A lot of our older mothers and fathers suffer from what we used to call the sugar," he says. "The bulk of my congregation works at Parkland Hospital, but it wasn't until [Robertson] came that they got all these nurses and nurse's aides into health and wellness. It has been such a blessing."

The ministry hasn't stopped there. The church hosts monthly checks of blood pressure, blood glucose, and other health measures. And the ministry also keeps medical information on hand for every member. Robertson credits DeVaull's leadership. "I explained to him about how it worked: 'I would hate for someone in your congregation to pass out and you just think they're in the spirit, but really their blood sugar is low,' " she says. "We pretty much know how to keep an eye on everybody now."—Lindsey Wahowiak

English Channel Swim

Dover, England

Mark Blewitt, above front left.

Long, long swims are old hat for Mark Blewitt. Not just hours doing laps at the pool, but icy miles of open-water swims, usually at an amazingly athletic pace. The 44-year-old salesman from Lancaster, England, swam around the island of Manhattan and across the English Channel, solo. For anyone, those would be feats. For someone who was then managing his type 1 diabetes with multiple daily injections, it was even more impressive.

When he started using an insulin pump, however, Blewitt found a new opportunity: He helped organize a team to swim a relay across the English Channel, from the Dover coast to the French shoreline. On July 21, the team of six experienced athletes—three type 1 pump users and three people without diabetes—completed the more than 22-mile journey in about 13 1/2 hours, each swimming for an hour at a time.

"I really hugely underestimated how cold the water is," says Claire Duncan, 40, of London, recalling the choppy waves and 55-degree water temperatures. Other obstacles: tides and the wakes of passing vessels.

It helped that the team had major support along the way from the diabetes device maker Animas Corp., which provided waterproof pumps for the swimmers with diabetes and helped them raise money for diabetes research. Even more exciting to the type 1 swimmers was the opportunity to inspire others with diabetes. "As soon as you try a little bit, your control is so much better, and you feel so much better, you'll want to do a little bit more," Blewitt says. "It can be done, so find a way."—L.W.

Pathstar Alcatraz Swim

San Francisco

Chrystal White Eyes (left) and Nancy Iverson, MD, huddle as they get into the icy waters of San Francisco Bay.

When Chrystal White Eyes learned about Pathstar, she jumped at the chance to support a cause she believed in. The program raises awareness about diabetes in Native Americans from the poverty-stricken Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, many of whom live with the disease and with few resources to prevent and treat it. The issue hit close to home: White Eyes grew up in Pine Ridge before she moved to San Francisco to live near her brother, who has diabetes.

Nancy Iverson, MD, a pediatrician who spent years on the Pine Ridge reservation, formed the nonprofit in 2000 to instill a sense of hope and support in a community whose only introduction to diabetes was a long list of things to avoid. Her goal in initiating Pathstar's annual weeklong training program was to prove life with diabetes is more than a "to-don't" list. "If we find the right activity," she says, "it's actually really joyful."

In her eagerness to support Pathstar's cause, White Eyes slightly overlooked the event that caps off the week: a swim from Alcatraz Island, site of the once legendary prison in San Francisco Bay. "I jumped into it without knowing what it entailed," she says of her first swim in the choppy waters between the Rock and the city. "I'm like, 'This is a really long ways. Oh no, oh no!' "

But neither the distance nor icy water could ruin the day for White Eyes. "I was thinking, 'I'm doing this for a reason. I can do this,' " she says. A year after that first swim, White Eyes signed up for another, which she completed in October. She's not the same woman she was in the fall of 2010. She exercises regularly instead of eating fast food and preaches the importance of a healthy diet to friends, family, and Native Americans who hear her speak at conferences.

It's people like White Eyes—or a young teen named Alkapoane White Calf, who took the knowledge he learned during his two Alcatraz swims back to the Pine Ridge community—who leave Iverson optimistic. "My hope," she says, "is we'll 'success' [Pathstar] out of existence, that so many won't need us."—T.N.

Team Wild

Mari Ruddy

Mari Ruddy is a woman with a vision. Not only did she think up the Red Riders, a group of people with diabetes who wear red shirts during the American Diabetes Association's Tour de Cure cycling fund-raiser to show solidarity, but when she realized the ratio of men to women was a bit lopsided in favor of males, she started Team Wild.

"I wanted more women [with diabetes] to be able to do endurance athletics," says Ruddy, 46, who lives in Denver. What began in 2008 as a group of 20 female triathletes in matching uniforms looking for camaraderie and hard-core athletics is now 75 women strong and growing. Not only does the group of type 1 and type 2 women compete in triathlons, but they race in cycling and Ironman competitions or participate in the WILDfit program for people new to athletics.

"It's like there's been a hole your entire life and you don't know how to fill it, and this was it," says Mara Schwartz, 44, who has type 1 diabetes and is part of the cycling team. "I wish I had this 25 years ago, this information." That includes racing tips from top-notch coaches as well as diabetes management help from health care professionals.

Though many of the athletes live hundreds of miles from one another—and so only meet for training camp and select races—there's still a sense of sisterhood. "At first I was a little teeny bit intimidated," says Tiffany Briggs, 37, who is the only woman on the cycling team with type 2 diabetes. "I [now] have people that I can relate to, and that's helped me in the long run."

The women of Team Wild have always been inclusive (they even give their training partners the honorary title of Type 3), but Ruddy is opening the doors even further come February, when the team will welcome men with diabetes. The hope is that they'll be just as inspired and empowered as women like Schwartz have been. "I got pretty emotional on my ride," she says of a 100-miler she competed in earlier this year. "I'd meet certain mileage points and start crying because I couldn't believe I was doing it."—T.N.

Team Type 1 Women's Cycling

Kori Seehafer (second from right) with members of the Team Type 1 women's cycling team.

In 2008, Kori Seehafer was the third-ranked American women's cyclist and had a ticket to the Olympics as an alternate. When she was ready to retire a year later, Seehafer, 36, learned of Team Type 1, a group of guys (many with type 1 diabetes) competing at the professional level in cycling. Notably missing: a women's team. Now, nine cyclists with diabetes make up Team Type 1's only women's team, a group Seehafer, as director and coach, is training to ride professionally one day. Though the athletes are far-flung—they mostly compete on their own and meet up a few times a year to race together—they're also part of a tight-knit community that discusses basal rates and blood glucose as often as race times.

"We've been able to talk through how we approach [diabetes management] and how we approach it differently," says Ann Findlay, 37, of San Francisco. "The level of support for women athletes on Team Type 1 is really phenomenal."

As much as Seehafer pushes the athletes to compete at their best level, her support is invaluable when it comes to blood glucose management, team members say. Though she doesn't have diabetes, she knows how endurance exercise affects diabetes management—and not just because she spent a year hooked up to a continuous glucose monitor for research. That knowledge lets her sense blood glucose shifts in her athletes that others might not catch. "As a coach, I see, oh no, she's hit this wall and she's super spacey. I call them on it," says Seehafer, who coaches from her home in Louisville, Colo.

Of course, there's more to the team than racing. The simple fact that all athletes on the team have type 1 diabetes gives them exposure, not just for their racing abilities but also for raising diabetes awareness.

If there's one thing Seehafer and others hope people learn from the team, it's that your life and your dreams don't end with a diabetes diagnosis. "Not only do people on the team compete, but they win," says Findlay. "They're really competitive. They're tremendous athletes. And that was inspiring to me, that you can reach the highest levels."—T.N.


Las Vegas

MJ2 (from left): Jackie Singer, daughters Jackie and Mollie, and sister Mollie Miller.

Let's get something out of the way: MJ2 is a musical group made up of twin sisters, their mother, and her twin. And, yes, there's a Mollie and Jackie in each set. Confused yet?

Team captain, at least where diabetes is concerned, is 22-year-old Mollie Singer, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 4 and became a diabetes advocate practically overnight. By age 5, she and her twin, Jackie, who doesn't have diabetes, had already raised $2,000 for diabetes research in one summer—on a lemonade stand. That's small beans compared with what the twins have raised since then: about $750,000.

"The truth is, they felt a calling to do what they were doing, which was to be that active, that out in front of the disease, and to help however they could," says Jackie Singer, the twins' mother. As 6-year-olds, they were lobbying senators and Congress members. At 10, the girls founded Diabetic Angels, which has blossomed into an educational resource and community for people with the disease. And as if all of that weren't enough, the girls, along with their mother and aunt, decided to take on Nashville.

After signing with a record label, the group joined its producer in a hunt for musicians willing to donate their time for charity. The result: "You Can't Say Love Enough," an MJ2 song featuring 18 stars, including Dolly Parton. With support from producer Dennis Money, who also has type 1 diabetes, MJ2 is donating the proceeds for diabetes research.

"I was just overwhelmed and humbled that all of these people could come together for one cause," says Mollie Singer of their debut single. Next up: a television debut. The group's turning on the camera for an as-yet-unnamed reality TV show. Though the show will focus on the family's music, it also won't hide Mollie's diabetes. If anything, it will prove the importance of a support system Mollie relies on so heavily. "They're just there for me," she says, "even if I just need a hug."—T.N.

Ana and Sysy Morales

Harrisonburg and Roanoke, Va.

Ana (left) and Sysy Morales

Even though she and her sister were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in succession, Sysy Morales doesn't pretend the two were in any way alike when it came to their diagnoses. "The first decade or so with diabetes, I did not do so well with it," says Sysy, 28, who was diagnosed at age 11, just months after then 3-year-old Ana's diagnosis. "I was rebellious and I wanted to be independent. My sister was the type that just did everything my parents told her. Her A1C was really good and mine wasn't."

Still, the sisters formed a bond over diabetes that has spanned the eight-year gap between their ages and lasted into adulthood.

After overcoming a long bout of depression and giving birth to twins, Sysy started The Girl's Guide to Diabetes blog, and she asked for Ana's help. "I'm so different from her and at a different stage in my life," says Ana, a student at James Madison University. In fact, type 1 diabetes is almost the only similarity the two share on the site. While Sysy writes about raising twins, Ana discusses attending college. Sysy is outspoken and outgoing. Ana's gentle and shy. And while Sysy expresses herself in words, Ana is an artist whose paintings are featured on the blog.

Yet it's exactly the mix that keeps the site interesting for readers, mostly women. Or maybe it's the optimistic view the Morales sisters have on diabetes that links their differing perspectives and rallies support.—T.N.

Jessica Apple and Michael Aviad

Tel Aviv, Israel

Jessica and Michael Aviad

Jessica Apple and Mike Aviad grew up without diabetes. They married without diabetes. And for the longest time they lived as a couple without diabetes. That's why both were stunned when, within a matter of six years, each was diagnosed with diabetes (he with type 1 and she with gestational twice, followed by latent autoimmune diabetes in adults, or LADA). "There's an element of craziness to it," says Apple, 38. "What are the odds?"

Instead of complicating their marriage, diabetes has brought the couple closer. "I wouldn't say we're lucky to be able to share this, but we offer each other companionship on a level we never guessed we would," says Apple. "We aren't just sympathetic to the other's highs and lows and fears. We actually know them."

Together they have created a diabetes-friendly life, monitoring their nutrition, exercising (Aviad is a five-time marathoner), buying diabetes supplies, and visiting the doctor. Another thing they do as a team: run the diabetes website A Sweet Life, which aims to provide community, share expert tips and recipes, and inspire readers. As cofounders, Apple and Aviad culled a group of writers with diabetes to discuss the disease on a personal level. "I think it's important to have different voices that people can connect with," says Aviad, 42. "Everyone on our site is striving for a healthy life with diabetes."

The common thread throughout the blog posts and articles is the idea of living happily with diabetes. "Mike and I could treat ourselves as sick people who are limited in what we can do and what we can eat. Instead, we push ourselves to do more," Apple says. "I want people to know that life with diabetes can be sweet."—T.N.

New York Stem Cell Foundation

New York City

Researchers at the New York Stem Cell Foundation lab.

When Susan Solomon's son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes 18 years ago, at the age of 10, Solomon didn't sit back and wait for a cure. Instead, she embarked on a journey that landed her at the helm of an organization that brings together stem cell researchers trying to cure diseases like diabetes. "I realized that the best contribution I could make," says Solomon, CEO of the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF), "was to get involved and use whatever skills I had to make sure as much good research was being done as possible."

And good research, to Solomon, meant creating a place where scientists could find not only financial support but a sense of community in their stem cell pursuits. Stem cells have the ability to turn into other types of cells, like those that make insulin, but their study has been mired in political and ethical controversy. Because of that, stem cell research "wasn't being supported in a robust way," says Solomon, so the NYSCF awards grants to "ensure that there is a pipeline of young people at the top of their field who go into stem cell research notwithstanding the political issues."

A young researcher who found funding through the NYSCF is Shuibing Chen, PhD, who has been able to turn stem cells in her laboratory into insulin-producing cells. The NYSCF also has its own in-house laboratory of 35 researchers. "They are very focused on their goal, which is to find a cure for disease," says Chen. "That is the part that isn't fully supported by traditional academic institutions. That's what makes the NYSCF unique."
Erika Gebel, PhD



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