You might remember Natalie Strand, a physician specializing in chronic pain management, as the winner of the 2010 season of CBS’ The Amazing Race. Not only was she part of the first all-women team to win, she also was the first contestant with diabetes.
A lot has changed for Nat over the last five years. For one, she now is married, a new mom, and pregnant with her second child. For another, she has embraced her celebrity status to become in involved with the diabetes community through dLife, Beyond Type 1, Colgate, Diabetes Sisters, and JDRF, sharing her story to help others and raise awareness.
DSM: Despite being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 12, you have led an active life that has included running half marathons, scuba diving, biking, and skiing. Has diabetes presented challenges to these activities? Or has living with diabetes made you more driven to take on physical challenges?
Natalie Strand: Well, having a baby, being pregnant, and nursing over the last two years, my lifestyle today is much different than it was in 2010. At that time, I was very active. The timing of The Amazing Race was just as I was coming out of medical school, residency, and internship. Having been completely focused on becoming a physician, I was really itching for balance in the universe, to break out of my life and do something big. The Amazing Race offered that. I’ve always had that yearning for balance, when one part of your life takes so much of your time. That’s what scuba diving, travel, The Amazing Race do — they are empowering, rejuvenating experiences that fill the well, so to speak.
Does diabetes motivate me to prove I can still do it? I’ll say this: I don’t think having diabetes makes me do things I otherwise wouldn’t do. However, I’m very adamant that I will never let diabetes stand between me and a good adventure! It certainly can be a challenge, but I have never allowed diabetes to become a limitation.
DSM: Tell us a little about your work. Does being a medical professional make you better, or worse, at managing your diabetes?
Natalie Strand: I work in interventional, chronic pain management, focusing on patients who live with chronic pain syndromes. I take a multi-modal, comprehensive approach to the management of pain. A lot of what I do overlaps with living with Type 1, which definitely helps me manage my diabetes. All day long, I talk with patients about the importance of weight management, stress management — it spills over into my personal life.
On the other hand, there were times, such as during my residency, when it was harder to manage my diabetes. It definitely took a backseat. Now that I have a better work/life balance, my career helps me better manage my diabetes.
DSM: After you signed on for The Amazing Race in 2010, you found out the producers refused to carry additional insulin or other health supplies and you would need to carry a full month of supplies in the one backpack you were limited to carrying. Were you nervous about being able to keep your diabetes in check?
Natalie Strand: Nervous? Absolutely. That’s The Amazing Race rule: One backpack, that’s it. It actually made it harder for me than for other contestants. I had to make sure I had enough test strips, insulin, syringes, glucose meters, a glucagon emergency kit, and snacks. Unforeseen things can happen in a month, especially on the road in several different countries. Packing was the first big challenge — I worked with my health-care team. I famously said I didn’t even have room for a hairbrush — going on national TV for a month without a hairbrush is its own challenge!
I felt safe most of the time. Being a physician and doing the race with another physician [Kat Chang] certainly helped. Kat carried some supplies in her backpack as well.
DSM: During The Amazing Race, were you concerned about living with the realities of diabetes in front of millions of viewers?
Natalie Strand: While the race was happening, I was so distracted I wasn’t thinking about it. You’re not thinking about being on TV; you’re too focused doing the actual race. But after the race while I was waiting for it to air, that’s when I worried. It made me uncomfortable — I was worried about being judged. For example, once I was driving and stuck my finger in the back seat for Kat to test my blood sugar. Or struggling with highs — when they aired my blood sugar at 300, those things usually are private.
But the outcome was very positive. Sharing your diabetes can be both good and bad, but it ended up bringing me so much support.
DSM: Upon winning The Amazing Race, you used your newfound celebrity to educate, increase awareness, and advocate for the diabetes community. Are you still involved?
Natalie Strand: Absolutely. Since that time, I’ve been very lucky to be invited to participate with several wonderful organizations to share my story, and I serve on the council for Beyond Type 1.
I also reach out on a personal level. For example, last week a girl on my street was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. I went over and shared my tips and tricks. She’s 16 and had questions about going to college, dating, etc. Doing things at a one-to-one level is wonderful.
When you get a little bit of publicity, a lot of people reach out. I try to answer all of the letters and phone calls I receive. I try to do whatever I can; I know that in the beginning, diabetes can be so overwhelming. I’m on the other side of a lot of things now — college, medical school, dating, The Amazing Race, becoming a wife and mother — so I try to share my story as much as possible to let other women know that everything is possible.
DSM: What advice would you give someone newly diagnosed?
Natalie Strand: Number one is not to let the amount of information overwhelm you and to try as much as possible to stay positive. So much of what you hear are things you have to do, have to change. The best way to stay positive is to connect with other people who have lived well with diabetes. I did not connect with the diabetes community at all until after The Amazing Race. That was a loss for me.
Connecting made it so much easier. Whatever phase you’re in, someone has been through it already. As a new mom, being able to connect with others who have children is inspiring. Whether meeting long-distance runners with diabetes or 75-year-olds living complication-free with diabetes, connecting with the diabetes community has been an overwhelming source of support and an amazing resource.
I never stop learning from others with diabetes, even though I’ve had it for 25 years.