Diabetes Self-Management Articles

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The Importance of Role Models

by Amy Mercer

Former Miss America and diabetes advocate Nicole Johnson is another role model for women with diabetes who says it’s a privilege and responsibility to be a role model for others. “I’m thrilled when young men and women share their feelings about the public way I’ve lived my life with diabetes. It’s incredibly touching and inspiring to me personally. I was thrust into the spotlight in 1999, and I have been so honored to continue to travel and speak out about diabetes care and the power of optimism. When I speak, it’s wonderful to watch the faces. I feed off the audiences. The intimacy that we all have by a shared life with disease is remarkable. I often think we don’t acknowledge that bond enough, and we sometimes take it for granted. How special to be surrounded by people that understand you! That is part of the emotion for me as I speak and share, because I get to look out at a diabetes family.”

Reading books by public figures such as Mary Tyler Moore or Nicole Johnson or hearing them speak can help people transition from the “why me?” stage of having diabetes to the acceptance stage, in part by helping them see that they’re not the only ones facing the challenges of living with diabetes. But while it’s important to have celebrities to show that people with diabetes can reach for the stars, you don’t need to be famous to be a role model. Often, the most inspiring people are not.

Brandy Barnes, founder of the nonprofit support organization Diabetes Sisters, says, “It’s really important to look to the ‘everyday women’ with diabetes around us for inspiration.” Barnes organizes an annual Diabetes Sisters conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, and says that each year, when it comes time to identify female celebrities with diabetes to honor or invite to speak at the conference, it’s a challenge. “I hear stuff about [rock star] Bret Michaels, [football player] Jay Cutler, [basketball player] Adam Morrison, [Olympic snowboarder] Sean Busby, and [swimmer] Gary Hall, Jr., on the news regularly, but I don’t hear about female athletes with diabetes or even female celebrities with diabetes.”

One of those “everyday women” who might be considered a role model is Emily Stunek, who herself was influenced by a role model with diabetes when she was younger. Currently a college student in Minnesota, Stunek was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was seven years old. “Quinn (Nystrom) and I come from the same hometown, and when I was in middle school, she came and spoke to people with diabetes at our school. She talked about how she deals with it on a day-to-day basis, and what we can do to be advocates. Ever since then, we’ve become good friends.” That relationship made it easier for Stunek to go away to college, and Nystrom’s visit additionally inspired Stunek to become an advocate herself. Since then, she’s participated in the American Diabetes Association’s Walk to Stop Diabetes almost every year.

“More recently, I’ve become involved with advocacy as a Team Red Captain for the American Diabetes Association. Last year I was honored to go to Washington, DC, as a part of the ADA’s Call to Congress event to speak with legislators regarding diabetes funding, research, and support. Being a part of this community has really helped me accept having diabetes. I am not alone in this fight. And as an advocate, I want to encourage every person with diabetes to do the same.”

Where to find a role model
Diabetes role models can be found anywhere, but if you haven’t stumbled across any by chance, there are a variety of places to look for them.

Big Blue Test. Weight Watchers leader Susan Ito says one of the most meaningful things she’s done since her diagnosis was to participate in the Big Blue Test video, which showed people with diabetes being active in different ways. This award-winning video was created by the nonprofit Diabetes Hands Foundation and takes place every November leading up to Diabetes Awareness Day on November 14. The campaign reinforces the importance of exercise in managing diabetes. People with diabetes are encouraged to do the Big Blue Test between November 1 and November 14 by checking their blood glucose level, getting active, checking it again, and sharing the results online at www.bigbluetest.org.

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