By Nicole Johnson
Special to the Times
It has been almost 19 years since the day that my doctors defined the course of my life with a devastating diagnosis: Type 1 diabetes.
Within days, they decreed that nearly everything I wanted out of life was impossible because of my condition. I was advised to drop out of college, move home with my parents, choose a predictable and calm career, and forget about motherhood.
I was also told that I should avoid competition, which would be far too stressful for me.
I was in despair. I denied I had a problem. I isolated myself. I got sicker.
Then I got smarter. With the support of caring people in my life, I learned that, yes, I have a serious illness, but I also have a voice in my health and in my life.
Today, I have two master's degrees. I have worked in television and public health.
I have flown more than 3 million miles educating people about diabetes. In 2006 I gave birth to a healthy child.
As for competition? I checked that taboo off the list on the evening I walked down the runway and heard them announce that I would be crowned Miss America 1999.
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In the past 19 years, I have walked many paths with this disease. At times I have isolated myself. Mostly, though, I have been surrounded by people who care about me. There's no contest: I am healthier and better when I have support.
I like to say that whether you have Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, or any other chronic illness, friends are medicine. You live better with friends who help, support and challenge. In fact, I call these people "Type 3's," anyone who cares enough to help, support and challenge you — and as a result, have their lives changed by diabetes, too.
November is National Diabetes Month. I'm sharing my story in hopes others who face health challenges can gain some insight into how crucial it is to find the connections we all need to weather the toughest times.
Every day I live with the reality of a chronic disease that will kill me if I don't take precise, consistent care of myself. How precise?
In the past 19 years I have given myself:
• 45,000 finger sticks to check my blood sugar
• 10,000 insulin injections
• 1,500 insulin pump site changes
And that's on top of all the care I must take with lifestyle measures such as nutrition. Little wonder I rely so much on my friends, family and health care professionals.
• • •
Every day, I am grateful for all these people and the many medical advances in diabetes care that benefit me every day. But constant vigilance in the face of dire consequences brings a complex psychological turmoil into daily living. It is all too easy to slip into depression, discontent, chronic sadness and to have a defeated attitude. I fight it daily.
Yet I believe in optimism, in happiness, in the power of spirit and in the power of relationships. Science supports this notion. A positive attitude leads to better quality of life, and that means better outcomes.
I see this power every day in my life and in my work at Bringing Science Home, a program I run at the University of South Florida. We believe that people need to know more about possibility and how daily living — including social connection — impacts health.
And we believe health care professionals need to learn these lessons, too.
So many times in my care I have only seen the top of a doctor's bowed head. Their eyes never made contact, their hands never felt my nervousness and frustration. My thoughts and beliefs were never addressed.
Today, I know enough to seek out the connections that I need, and to challenge those who stand in my way. My years of disease have been filled with some pain, but also with beautiful moments that have made me stronger and wiser.
My hope is that health care professionals realize the power of their words, responses and advice. And even more, I hope that patients realize possibility always exists — especially if they keep reaching out for it.
Nicole Johnson is executive director of Bringing Science Home at USF Health. For more information, go to bringingsciencehome.com, or go to her web site: nicolejohnson.com.