Coffee Date #2: Elizabeth Rowley and T1International

Elizabeth Rowley, Founder and Director of T1International, joins Very Light, No Sugar for the second interview in the Coffee Dates series. I encourage readers to visit the links included by Elizabeth and to help the #Insulin4All movement however you can.

 

A:  What led you to develop T1International?

E:  In short, I recognized how privileged I was to grow up in a place with access to good medical care and the supplies I needed to live a healthy life. I could not – and I still cannot – understand why health is not treated like a human right for everyone around the world.

As I learned more about what people with type 1 diabetes face in all parts of the globe, I wanted to address the problems by working with people most affected. I could not find any other groups tackling the issues through advocacy, so I thought T1International could bring the diabetes community together to ensure that no one dies because they cannot access or afford something as basic as insulin or test strips.

 

A:  T1International’s current campaign of #Insulin4All has been making lots of good noise on social media. What is one simple, immediate way for individuals to help out the cause?

E:  Sign our Access Charter and spread the word. It takes two minutes to sign and shout about this on social media. Signing will not only show that you support five basic rights for all people with diabetes, but it will also add to the growing list of individuals and organisations who support these rights worldwide.

Advocates around the world will use this charter and the signatures as evidence for the growing global support behind the #insulin4all movement. It will allow advocates for type 1 diabetes to prove to the government that there is international support and pressure for sufficient access to insulin, diabetes supplies, care, education and protection for everyone with diabetes.

 

A:  There is a persistent call for transparency in the insulin access and affordability realm. Ideally, what would this transparency look like?

E:  In one sense, transparency would mean that pharmaceutical companies would no longer be allowed to raise or set prices for their products without true justification. The excuse that research and development is the main reason for high prices is not cutting it anymore. Insulin pricing is currently a mystery. Costs vary wildly around the world, and even within a single country. Simply being able to know the cost of production and the true list price that companies set for a drug like insulin would be a huge step forward in transparency.

Transparency is also important when it comes to patient advocacy organisations. It is important for all of us to think about how much potential there is to be influenced or ‘bought’ by industry. A recent USA study found that 67% of a sample of patient advocacy organizations (virtually all of which were not for profit) said that they received funding from for-profit companies. Relationships between patient organisations and industry can influence their actions “in ways that might not align with the interests of the constituencies they represent.” The same article notes evidence that financial relationships can create bias in areas like medical research, so non-profits and patient organisations are subject to the same concerns.  [Susannah L. Rose, PhD; Janelle Highland, MA; Matthew T. Karafa, PhD; et al]

Many diabetes organisations take money from pharmaceutical or device companies specifically. No one wants to compromise their income, but there is concern that orgs taking industry funding are keeping quieter than they would if their funding came from other sources. At the very least, organisations can be more transparent about where their funding comes from by having a clear declarations webpage that is obvious to visitors. We hope groups will consider that continually accepting funding from pharma companies often “creates a routine awareness among sponsored groups that one doesn’t bite the hand that feeds it.”  [Ray Moynihan, PhD; Lisa Bero, PhD]

 

A:  We have discussed the great power of personalizing the insulin story. Give us one brief narrative of how T1International’s work directly influences the life of someone with diabetes.

E:  It is literally the difference between life and death. It is also the difference between feeling alone and knowing you have a community rallying behind you. Salomey and [her] mother in Ghana had to sell most of their belongings to be able to afford Salomey’s insulin – they were running out of options. With support from a local group (Diabetes Youth Care) and T1International, Salomey was able to get the supplies and support she needed. She finished high school in 2015 and she is working to ensure she can purchase the supplies on her own. T1International continues to work with Salomey and other Diabetes Youth Care advocates in Ghana on a larger scale, advocating for #insulin4all so that Salomey’s story will be replicated many times over.

 

A:  Where do you see T1International’s work going in future years?

E:  All of our work moving forward will support our strategic plan, which focuses on four different areas including:

  1. raising awareness of the global lack of access and affordability of diabetes
  2. connecting and collaborating with groups around the world to provide resources and outreach
  3. pushing for better data and resources about global type 1 diabetes
  4. campaigning and advocacy advocating for systemic change

More specifically, in the near future we plan to carry out online advocacy trainings focused on the content from our advocacy toolkit. We would like to hold open sessions for advocates to come together to talk about best practice, share ideas, and talk strategy related to the specific issues they want to tackle locally or globally. Further afield, we would like to do larger, in-person training sessions with groups around the world. In the meantime, we won’t stay quiet about the need for transparency and #insulin4all!

 

A:  Is there a specific geographical area that is high on the priority list for insulin access assistance in 2017?

E:  It is impossible to prioritise one country over another when so many people are still dying from type 1 diabetes in so many countries. We would like to see more data collected, perhaps through establishing diabetes registries, in Africa as a whole. There needs to be more government prioritisation of access to medicines in nearly every country, which is why we are committed to supporting people and communities worldwide.

 

A:  Favorite beverage?

E:  Flat white  🙂

Reese’s Cups and Hamster Wheels

I first fell in love with memoir as a junior in high school during a course aptly titled Rewriting A Life.  There, I was introduced to the work of Mary Karr, and to this day I soak up her words like a sponge absorbs a misplaced glass of cabernet: fully, and scattering droplets where they are most needed (the only clean part of the carpet, for example).

Here’s a droplet:

When you’ve been hurt enough as a kid (maybe at any age), it’s like you have a trick knee.  Most of your life, you can function like an adult, but add in the right portions of sleeplessness and stress and grief, and the hurt, defeated self can bloom into place.

-Mary Karr

That’s sort of how I feel lately.  The perfect storm of life stressors- past, present, and future- has left me questioning my moral successes and failures, my worthiness as an advocate, and where to go from here.  The answer is that there is no black or white response- only more questions, and more places to go.  The best work I can do at the moment is simply to voice this.

I am angry that our fellow people with diabetes are dying because insulin is inaccessible and ludicrously expensive.  I am angry that the people who can afford insulin- myself included- are under the constant pressure of maintaining positive disease outcomes with rusty toolboxes.  I am angry that we do not have a cure.  I am angry that we are so fragmented as a community, that when we voice dissent we are quickly hushed by the status quo of comfortableness and the diabetes industry- luxuries that so many others do not have.  Finally, I am angry that I am angry, that I have scapegoated much of my anger on diabetes, and that I have not always handled life’s difficulties with the grace and dignity that I know dwell within my heart.

However, I am grateful that despite the bad stuff, there are friends and supporters who still believe in the good stuff.  Their love has never wavered, and has inflated into a life raft when needed most.  (Thank you).

Rewriting A Life does not mean you get to copy and paste a Cinderella ending to your story.  You simply get to live it, and to describe the good and the bad in detail that has the potential to resonate with someone else who desperately needs to hear you.  Perhaps you desperately need to be heard, too.

Recently, emotional and physical health have felt like running on the hamster wheel while nursing a sprained ankle and a hangover.

So, I switched things up and adopted a guinea pig.

img_9395

This is Reese.  She is colored like a Reese’s cup.  

She is currently petrified of me, but I hope the same thing that I hope for you, or me, or any living creature: that she feels loved nonetheless.  

 

 

 

Chocolate and Nightmare Visit Boston

I recently had the honor of accompanying my Stanford Medicine X (#MedX) bestie, Danielle Edges, and her young daughter, Alex, on their visit to Children’s Hospital Boston for a heart catheter procedure. Alex has a congenital heart disease called heterotaxy, additionally complicated by liver and spine issues. Danielle’s honest perspective on her family’s life with CHD can be found on her blog, Life is hard. Wear a Helmet. Adventures in Life. With Danielle’s permission, I am sharing my take on her family’s bravery here.

 

I joined the Edges at their hotel room because Alex’s heart cath had been postponed a few hours. Danielle and Alex had endured many tiring hours of travel across the country two days earlier. The good news about the delay in the procedure was that I got to hang out with them for a few hours away from the beeping of hospital machines and the drowsiness of anesthesia. The bad news was that Alex could not eat before the heart cath, so adding an extra few hours to that timeline was understandably not ideal.
Alex, Danielle, and Ally selfie

MedX and MedX’er-in-training selfie.

 

Alex’s lively spirit was contagious despite being hungry, however. Danielle and I are both known to say what we mean as healthcare advocates, which is probably why we click so well. I saw Danielle’s energy and wit in Alex, who is well-versed in medical lingo after many hospital stays in the past. (We totally have a future MedX’er-in-training!)

We tried to distract from the hunger pangs by coloring birds in a coloring book, or playing with Alex’s new stuffed puppy toy that the Fairy MedX Godmother, Ally, brought along for the hospital stay.
Alex- present

“I love my present.” -Alex.  (Complete with Chocolate, the puppy, picture).

 

“What is that? I want one!” Alex proclaimed, pointing to my Dexcom receiver.

We discussed how we were similar in some ways, as Alex has a medical device connected to her as well- a G-tube to help her get the proper amount of nutrients each day. Her blood sugar can also dip low due to her liver condition, and who doesn’t like a communal grumble about hypoglycemia?!

Soon it was time to head over to the hospital. The air was frigidly cold on our short walk there. This was my first time stepping foot in Children’s despite decades of treatment nearby at the Joslin Diabetes Center and having family and friends who have received lifesaving care at BCH. Simply walking through the main entryway is a moving experience; there are families from all over the world, children with conditions both very visible and very invisible, all there to seek topnotch medical care at the best children’s hospital.

We were taken to a hospital bed for the preparations prior to the heart cath. A kind nurse gently informed Alex that she would need IV fluids. The nurse spoke directly with Alex, not at her. Alex was treated like the informed member of the healthcare team that she is, even at only eight years old.

Another nurse came in and the IV insertion was done before we even blinked. Kids tell it like it is, especially complex-medical kids whose perspectives are better than most. So, Alex looked right at the nurse and said “Ow,” and then immediately went back to watching TV stoically while Danielle and I chatted.

The nurses were so impressed with her courage that they rewarded Alex with a dark brown and black beanie baby puppy to complement Chocolate, the larger brown and white puppy.

“What is the new puppy’s name?” the nurse asked.

Alex had just been poked with a large needle. She was ravenous and about to undergo a difficult medical procedure.

“Nightmare,” she aptly replied.

From the mouths of babes, as they say. I will never forget the humor and irony in that moment for as long as I live.
Alex in hospital1

Rocking out with Chocolate and Nightmare.

 

Shortly thereafter, a nurse anesthetist administered medication to prep Alex for the heart cath, and it was time for her to be wheeled into the surgical room. As Alex dozed off, Danielle whispered that she loved her, and Alex whispered back, “I love you, too.”

In these moments, Danielle had to be strong not only for herself, but for her medically-complex child, as well as her daughter and husband back home. She is truly SuperMom, as evidenced by the poise she and Alex exhibited throughout the long day at the heart center.

I, on the other hand, do not always handle hospitals so well. We had not eaten much over the course of the busy day, and suddenly everything hit me all at once. The doctors came to the waiting room to speak to Danielle while Alex was in recovery. Danielle can explain the details far better than I can; please see her blog post here. In layman’s terms, there was good news peppered with difficult news.

We then proceeded back to Alex’s room. A nurse was with us as Alex slowly roused from the heavy sedation. This same nurse called Danielle with updates every hour while Alex’s heart cath went on, proving once again why Children’s Hospital gets every detail right. As I watched this little girl arising from such a long fight, my head suddenly started to spin. The room was hot, and my Dexcom indicated a fairly fast blood sugar drop.

I alerted Danielle and the nurse, who brought me some water and this adorable tiny carton of orange juice just in case I needed it.
OJ

OJ for the diabetes win.

 

Half of a granola bar consumed later, and I had recovered just as quickly as the dizzy spell had appeared.

“Diabetes is so… constant,” Danielle remarked afterwards.

“Yes, but so is all of this,” I replied, glancing around at the machines in Alex’s room.

Our respective diseases can act up in the exact moments when we wish they would behave; but the understanding and support that we have gained through our friendships at MedX and through ePatient communities have made those moments less scary. That much was articulated by those two sentences exchanged between myself and Danielle, an unspoken understanding and respect bridging the gap between health conditions.

As the evening progressed and Alex was moved to a new room for overnight observation, it was time for me to head back to Rhode Island. Danielle’s night was just beginning, though. There would be more IVs, chest xrays, and medications to be delivered, and this Mom would be by her daughter’s side through it all. We hugged and parted ways, knowing that we would see each other soon.

 

*****

To simply state that the Edges family is inspiring does not do justice to their story. I can best describe their strength by detailing a tiny moment in the grand scheme of the heart catheter day.

While we waited for Alex to be called in for the procedure, Danielle and I conversed in our signature animated dialogue, talking about hopes and dreams for healthcare, how much we missed our MedX friends and could not wait to be reunited, and more. Alex was quiet and focused on the cartoons playing in her room. She had an IV in her hand and was about to receive sedation medication before having an investigatory procedure performed- and, later, some intervention procedures- in the hopes of improving her quality of life. This was big stuff for a little kid.

I heard soft noises in the background as Danielle and I spoke, and I at first thought that Alex was crying or whimpering in nervousness before being taken away from Mommy. But then I listened more closely.

Alex was not crying. She was humming.

This child was about to have dye injected into her heart, to have coils installed to curtail pulmonary AVMs, to lie on a stiff operating table that would anger her scoliosis, to be in pain.

Yet despite it all, she was still happy.

She was humming.

 

 

To help get the #EdgesToBoston this summer, please see here.

HealthiVibe Blog

This week I was featured in HealthiVibe’s “The Patient Lens” blog series, where I discussed the challenges of diabetes stigma and misunderstanding, as well as the need for advocacy.  To read the blog post, please see here.

HealthiVibe does great work for patients, and for the healthcare community at large, by representing the human voice in medicine with an emphasis on the importance of clinical trials.

I am of the opinion that participants in clinical trials are of the very bravest and selfless amongst us.  Those of us currently taking medication owe our improved quality of life to clinical trial participants who stepped up and said “We’re willing to do this” when these medications were being tested.

Thank you to HealthiVibe, and to clinical trial participants, for all that you do.

Why Blog?

I have been experiencing a late-twenties existential crisis of sorts.

What am I doing?  Am I doing enough?  Am I helping others?  Where is my career going?  Do I really want to study what I am studying?  Should I go back to school after this degree?  I don’t like homework, but I like school, but if I go back to school to study A, then I have to cross B and C off the list. What if I like B and C, too?!  I love Providence, but I’ve been here forever.  Should I move? etc. etc. etc.

Every BuzzFeed article tells you that your twenties are all about this mental turmoil and that things will work themselves out later on.  And come on, it’s BuzzFeed, so it has to be right!

Then I start to wonder about blogging.  Why did I get into it?  Do I have a purpose in blogging?  Has that purpose changed?  Is that okay?  Should I take a break?  How long of a break?  What am I doing with my life?!!!

When I first started blogging, my posts stuck to two general themes:

1.) It’s about dang time that we cure this disease!

2.) Can someone out there offer a solution to my insulin pump problems- because this whole “insulin-getting-into-my-type-one-diabetic-body” thing seems kind of important?

Number 1 still tops my morning and evening prayer request list, and number 2 has found a workable fix for the time being.

So, why blog?

It is difficult to give a canned, one sentence answer when someone asks me that question. The obvious terms of “advocacy,” “friendship,” and “hobby” come to mind quickly. But there is purpose beyond even those things.

When we blog, we keep the conversation going. No matter where we live, our healthcare systems could all use improvements. If we do not talk about diabetes, who else is really going to? Who else understands how it feels to rip a pump site out via doorknob entrapment, or to wait for a cure that has always been 10 years away with an automatic “reset” button at every tenth year mark? Leaving our stamp on (virtual) paper pays homage to this courage and comradery, this part of the story that may otherwise be overlooked.

So, why blog? Because #AllOfTheThings.

Try.

Try.

Dictionary.com says

“to attempt to do or accomplish”

“to put to a severe test”

“subject to strain, as of endurance, patience, affliction”

“to attempt to open (a door, window, etc.) in order to find out whether it is locked: Try all the doors before leaving.”

Fear.

Dictionary.com says

“the feeling or condition of being afraid.”

I fear spiders.

I fear insulin- too much and too little and not finding that happy medium dose.

I fear carbohydrates- too many or too few.

My biggest fear, though, is misconception.

If something “bad” ever happens diabetes-wise, others might think that I didn’t try.

This is why,

despite the fears,

brush the spider off the car windshield.

Say a prayer and take the insulin.

Eat the carbohydrates.

Treat the lows and the highs.

Until there’s a cure, we must

“Try all the doors before leaving.”

Try.