At the age of 15, I sat with my sister, Jocelyn, in a dim concert hall on a chilly November night, about to see one of my favorite classic rock bands, Crosby, Stills, & Nash. Her beaming smile and excited jabbering about the concert faded into the rest of the conversations around me. My mind was lost. I became promptly anxious, contemplating how I would make it through the concert without a large water bottle in my lap. I had wandered to the water fountain at least five times since we had arrived in the building, but eventually my thirst was so extreme that it was impossible to hide, even from my family. I finally interrupted her train of thought and said, “Jocelyn, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m so thirsty and have been for the past couple of weeks.”
“You’re thirsty? You know, Aunt Emily has Type 1.” My body froze, I knew what was coming next. “Did you ever think it could be Diabetes?” Jocelyn inquired. As if my brain was resisting absorbing this information, I became silent and could not process what was happening. A minute and a half later, the room became completely dark, cueing the concert’s commencement, and I could no longer see my sister next to me. I felt completely alone.
At the time I knew there was something wrong with my body, but I had never guessed that I could have Type 1 Diabetes. Me? Diseased? I was always the child with perfect health; I grew up playing sports competitively and I was never fussy about eating the vegetables my parents served me. “Hmm, maybe I ate one too many cookies the other day,” I thought to myself. I was completely clueless about this new development.
A few weeks later, I endured four-night hospitalization with extremely high blood sugar levels and an official diagnosis that I knew was inevitable. I have now lived almost six years with Type 1 Diabetes. I have learned a tremendous amount from the experience; not only about my body and managing my health, but more importantly about my emotional strength and maturity. Initially, I was nervous to tell my friends at school, as I was not the most confident high schooler and I very rarely asked for attention. However, a nurse told me something that motivated me to share my disease with others. “Test your blood sugar and give yourself insulin shots in the open. The more you expose people, the more you make diabetes normal.” I took my nurse’s advice to heart. I wear an insulin pump now without shame or secrecy. Sometimes I even make jokes about my Type 1 Diabetes within the first ten minutes of meeting people. And when people still to this day ask me what my insulin pump insertion site is on my arm or why I’m pricking my finger, I simply respond to them as if they asked me what time it was. I want others to feel comfortable engaging in a dialogue about Diabetes, a disease common to many, providing them a better understanding of what I experience every day.
I have to thank Type 1 Diabetes for inspiring me to pursue a career as a Registered Dietitian and for empowering me to overcome any hurdles in my way. But despite all of this, I am constantly challenged by this disease. A normal functioning pancreas calculates the exact amount of insulin to produce for the amount of grams of carbohydrates consumed by a person. As a result, a healthy functioning individual maintains normal, stable blood sugar levels 24/7. In my case, I have to calculate the amount of insulin I need all by myself; I count the amount of carbohydrates I eat in every meal which correlates with a certain amount of insulin I think my body needs. Let’s not forget that I have to account for variables such as exercise, sleep, stress, menstruation, sunshine, and other variables. I’m one complicated science experiment to say the least. And if I make a mistake? I experience a high or low blood sugar level, which both make me feel sluggish, nauseous, frustrated, and hopeless.
Most people don’t understand my disease, including many people I’m close to. It is hard to fully understand Type 1 Diabetes unless it is experienced firsthand. No one can truly know the frustration of sitting on the sidelines of a soccer game because of low blood sugar, or not being able to focus on schoolwork because of high blood sugar, or being singled out for using a cell phone in class when your insulin pump starts to beep uncontrollably. In addition, I often hear misconceptions about my disease. “You look too skinny to have diabetes,” “Oh did you have too much sugar, is that why you have diabetes?”, “Type 1 is the kind you’re born with and Type 2 is the kind that fat people get.”
In my opinion, it is imperative that others can learn from my experiences to prevent any further false misunderstanding or judgment. Today and every day, I plan to continue flaunting who I am and remain strong while educating others along the way.
Allison Milch is a senior at Cornell University studying Nutritional Science and Dietetics. Her passion for nutrition developed after her diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes at age 15 and she now pursues a career as a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator. On Cornell’s campus, Allison leads a Diabetes Awareness club and she is the PR Chair for the Cornell University Dietetics Association (CUDA). While attending the American Association of Diabetes Educators (AADE) Conference in Indianapolis this summer, Allison attended lectures and spoke with several Certified Diabetes Educators. She learned about new treatment methods for diabetes management and techniques for effective patient counseling. Using her personal experiences with Type 1 Diabetes to guide her, Allison strives to improve her counseling skills to become an exceptionally strong clinician.