3 Things I Learned From the Virtual Friends for Life Orlando 2020 Conference

This past week, I attended my very first virtual diabetes conference: the 2020 Friends for Life Orlando conference, hosted by the Children with Diabetes (CWD) organization.

Before I recap my experience, I’ve got to give a heartfelt round of applause to every single individual involved in the process of turning this in-person event into a virtual one. Between figuring out the technology and adapting the program to make sense in an online format, I’m sure it wasn’t easy, but the CWD staff and many volunteers made it appear seamless. While every conference attendee (myself included) would have loved to see each other in real life in Orlando for this event, it was the right (safest) call to make this conference a digital one. And the majorly bright side of doing the conference online was that more people were able to attend *for free* – literally thousands of people! Each state in America was represented, as well as dozens of countries. The massive turnout makes me happy as I think about how much more accessible this particular conference was to people with diabetes and their families around the world.

Moving along to…the actual conference!

Attending the Virtual Friends for Life Orlando 2020 Conference
All decked out in my conference gear – t-shirt, name tag, green band, and OmniPod, to boot.

It ran from Wednesday, July 14th through Sunday, July 19th. Given that I was away with my family for the duration of the conference, I knew going into it that there was no way I would be able to attend every session or social event. (I was by the beach for a week, so when given the choice between staying indoors or logging onto my laptop…need I say more?). However, I also learned pretty quickly that many of the sessions were going to be recorded and made available at a later date (along with a report summarizing the conference, which will be ready on the CWD site in early August)…so there’s a good chance I’ll refer to some of those recordings for the sessions I missed.

But in terms of the handful of sessions that I did make it to, there were some major takeaways I got from them. Here’s what I learned:

#1: There are some important steps that I (and the rest of the diabetes online community) can take in order to address underrepresentation within our community. In the last few months, issues of underrepresentation of people of color within our diabetes online community has gained overdue attention. Individuals and organizations are working hard to address this and make everyone’s voices equally heard. However, I’m sure that I’m not the only person who felt helpless when trying to figure out how I, as just one person, can make a tangible difference. During one of the conference sessions that I attended, I learned that there are actual a few simple steps that I can take that will make a big impact over time: Follow social media accounts run by people of color. Amplify their voices by sharing and highlighting their content. Support and listen to their experiences as non-white individuals with (and without) diabetes. The bottom line is that everyone deserves to have their voice heard, no matter what, and our community must come together in order to help make this happen. It’s an uncomfortable truth that these representation issues exist, but it’s one worth acknowledging and doing everything within our power to fix it.

#2: Diabetes care and management comes in many different formats, and what works best for one person should always be respected. Of course, I’ve always known and believed in this, but this notion was reinforced for me during one of the sessions that I attended. I can’t remember the exact context, but it was brought up that sometimes people who choose to manage diabetes with multiple daily injections (MDI) take a little heat from people who use insulin pumps. In other words, those who prefer MDI might get pestered and questioned by this choice, which is unfair because it’s a very personal one. It reminded me of how I refused to even contemplate an insulin pump for nearly two decades of life with diabetes – I was so ardently against them for no real reason other than I just preferred my MDI regimen. But then when I did switch to a pump, I was instantly converted and I can’t really imagine going back to MDI. So when I saw a lot of MDI-ers reminding the rest of us that pumps aren’t for everyone, I remembered that diabetes care and management tools aren’t always high-tech (and that doesn’t make them any less effective) and that devices shouldn’t be pushed onto those who get by just fine the old-school way. At the end of the day, we’re all doing our best to take care of our diabetes in the way that’s right for us, and we should always remember that we’re in the fight together.

#3: Our community is strong, resilient, and adaptable – the virtual format didn’t put a damper on anyone’s enthusiasm. It was truly incredible to see how much energy every speaker, staff member, and attendee had for the event. You could practically feel it radiating through the computer screen in some of the sessions! Diabetes forces us to make decisions that are tough sometimes. It throws curve balls in our paths and we must find a way to deal with them, and we always do. This collective tenacity totally translated to this conference as we embraced the virtual format. It was heartwarming to see photos all across social media throughout the five days from attendees and speakers alike showing snippets of their at-home conference experiences, and I loved how everyone had so much spirit for the event. I admit that I even got up and danced  (to several songs) when we had our virtual banquet on Thursday night. I gladly draped the tablecloth and fairy lights I got in my BoFFL (Box of Friends for Life, a package I got in the mail last month containing swag from conference sponsors that was available to the first 500 conference registrants) to really set the mood as I ate dinner “with” diabetes community members across the country and ’round the world…and smiled widely because my T1D mom was able to experience it with me for the first time.

So yes, while it’s a bummer that I didn’t get to hug so many of my friends from the diabetes online community or meet new ones for the first time in-person, I’d say that the virtual conference exceeded my expectations in terms of what it delivered using the available technological resources and passion from the community. Hats off to the sponsors for doing what they could to really engage attendees, and another extra-special kudos to the staff, volunteers, and speakers who pulled off yet another amazing conference.

It just makes my anticipation for the next in-person one that much greater, knowing how wonderful it will be to see everyone in-person again.

Remembering my Time at the 2018 TypeOneNation Summit in Boston

In my final post for this week’s conference reflection series, I’m republishing my experience at the 2018 TypeOneNation Summit in Boston. This post was originally published on Hugging the Cactus on March 19, 2018. This conference was different from the other two I revisited this week because it took place in my neck of the woods, requiring very little travel. It was also one of the first times where a diabetes conference felt like family reunion to me, and it was very special. Read on for my full experience…

St. Patrick’s Day is a favorite holiday of mine because I enjoy celebrating my Irish heritage. Almost every year, I eat a traditional boiled dinner, listen to Irish music, and wear an excessive amount of green.

This year, though, was a little different. In addition to all of the above, I attended the TypeOneNation summit in Boston. The event was organized by JDRF and just about 900 people with diabetes attended, along with their families and caregivers.

There’s nothing like being in Boston on St. Paddy’s day, even if it is for an event that has nothing to do with the holiday’s shenanigans. The spirit of the day made it slightly less painful to wake up at the crack of dawn in order to catch an early morning commuter rail into the city. As I sipped an Irish cream iced coffee from Honey Dew (absolutely delicious) on the ride, I got myself pumped up for what would surely be a fun day.

Once we arrived at the Back Bay station, I was one frigid (and mercifully short) walk away from the event space: the Boston Marriott Copley hotel. I went straight to the registration table so I could receive a name tag and itinerary, then made a beeline for the vendor hall. You can never have too much free diabetes swag, am I right?

Within the hall, I recognized many familiar faces and happily made the rounds to chat with some of my T1D friends in attendance. I couldn’t help but feel like I was at a family reunion of sorts as I reconnected with people who I don’t get to see often enough.

Looking Back on my First Diabetes Conference (2)
This year’s TypeOneNation Summit in Boston had to be canceled at the last minute due to COVID, but here’s to hoping that it can safely happen again next year.

Before long, the events of the day got into full swing as the keynote speaker, Nicole Johnson, addressed the crowd. Nicole won the Miss America pageant in 1999 soon after she received her diabetes diagnosis. She’s done many incredible things since earning that accolade, and she delivered an inspiring speech about living life with diabetes to the fullest. As she spoke, I looked around the room and noticed all the little kids who were there. It warmed my heart to see how they received Nicole’s words. Many of them looked at her in absolute awe. It was obvious that they thought she was pretty great, and I bet that having diabetes in common with her helped them to feel just as cool. Nicole is definitely a wonderful role model!

The rest of the day went by much too quickly as I went to two different talks offered at the summit. One was about going to college with diabetes, and the other was about sex and drugs – the “taboo” diabetes topics. Even though I’ve already experienced what it’s like to go off to college with diabetes, I wanted to go to this talk because it was given by my friends from the CDN. I also wanted to meet the parents and children at the session because I was curious to learn about their concerns. As someone who went to a very similar talk seven (?!) years ago, I felt that I could potentially offer reassurance to these families, especially since the whole college experience was so recent for me. And it turned out that the woman seated next to me was an anxious mom who seemed receptive to the words of encouragement I spoke to her at the end of the panel. While I believe that the session could’ve lasted many more hours (everyone was so engaged in the conversation), I think that the session acted as a good launching point into future discussions for many families who are going to make this transition soon.

I wolfed down a quick lunch – I loved seeing the food labeled with carb counts – before heading to the next session. I chose it because, c’mon, a title like “Sex, Drugs, and Rock n’ Roll” can get anyone’s attention. Plus, I feel very strongly that the touchier diabetes topics SHOULD be talked about more often. They can be scary to approach, but it’s important to know what to expect in certain situations in which diabetes can play a major role. I had to duck out of this one a bit early to catch the commuter rail back home, but they were delving into some pretty juicy stuff when I got up to leave. I give major credit to all of the panelists in that one – it can’t be easy to talk about highly personal intimate matters in a room filled with strangers!

Although my time at the summit was truncated, I’m so glad that I took the time to go to it. It’s no secret that I enjoy talking with other people with diabetes. Hearing their stories and sharing experiences makes diabetes feel less isolating. And I’m thrilled that I finally got to meet a few people I knew from the DOC but had yet to see in person!

Diabetes conferences, meet-ups, summits…they’re the types of family reunions you actually get excited about and want to attend.

My Experience at the 2017 Weekend for Women Diabetes Conference

I’m continuing to revisit my blog posts on past diabetes conferences I’ve attended. Today’s post was originally published on Hugging the Cactus on October 16, 2017. This “Weekend for Women” conference was an absolute whirlwind and a one-of-a-kind experience! Read on to learn more about it…

It’s always amazing to me how powerful it is to be in a room filled with people with diabetes.

I was lucky enough to experience that wonderful sensation this past weekend as I attended the 2017 Weekend for Women Conference held in Alexandria, Virginia. This conference brought together all sorts of individuals: people with type 1 diabetes (and people with T2D), people who love or care for someone with diabetes, diabetes educators, registered dietitians, certified personal trainers, gifted public speakers, and individuals who came to the conference willing to share with and learn from others. It was also a bit different from standard conferences because it was coordinated by two groups – DiabetesSisters and Diabetes Collective, Inc. (which created the Diabetes UnConference).

The 48 hours that I spent at the conference were an absolute whirlwind, but I’ll do my best to recap it for you here.

Let’s start with Friday evening. Almost immediately after arriving at the Embassy Suites hotel in Alexandria, Virginia, I sat down for my first session of the weekend: The Diabetes Policy Advocacy Coalition (DPAC) boot camp. I learned what exactly diabetes advocacy policy is and how easy it is for me to get involved with it. Now more than ever, it’s extremely important for PWD and those who care for them to push our policymakers into supporting public policy initiatives that improve the health of those with diabetes.

After this energizing session, it was time to mingle with all the other conference attendees. It was really neat to meet people who I previously “knew” from interacting with them online and make that face-to-face connection. I also enjoyed meeting new people and expanding my own personal diabetes network. We rounded off the evening by attending a hilarious forum called Sex, Pods, and Rock n Roll, where a panel of diabetes all-stars answered questions from the audience about the more “taboo” diabetes topics. All you need to know is that this session resulted in a room full of PWD brainstorming a new product idea: edible underwear. It’d be perfect for low blood sugars when you’re in…the heat of the moment, no?

Fast-forward to Saturday, a day with an extremely full agenda. It was hard to choose which workshops to attend, but I wound up going to sessions about mindful eating, the physiology of diabetes and exercise, balancing an active life and diabetes, and making use of the glycemic index. I found myself learning something new in each session, which is really cool. After all, I’ve had diabetes for almost 20 years, but it goes to show that you can always learn something new and useful about your chronic condition by listening to others.

Looking Back on my First Diabetes Conference (1)
Who else has a collection of conference name tags/badges?

In between the sessions, we enjoyed an extended lunch break in which I got to meet even more new people. I was particularly excited to meet and interview with Stacey Simms, who hosts the podcast called Diabetes Connections. That means there’s a chance you’ll hear my voice in one of her upcoming podcasts!

The evening ended with a reception hosted by Dexcom, similar to the one the night before. I didn’t stay for the whole thing, but I loved every second of it because I became immersed in a thoughtful conversation with other women with T1D. We talked about healthcare, politics, and what it’s like to be a woman with T1D in this day and age. It was a pleasure listening to what each lady had to say and again, really great to be talking to a like-minded group.

And just like that, it was Sunday morning – the final day of the conference. We only had a half day together, but it was just as awesome as the previous days. One session I went to was about diabetes and pregnancy, and the other was about being the CEO of your own healthcare. Just like the previous days, the speakers presented fantastic information and I found myself feeling sad that it was my last day with this group of people.

I had to duck out of the last group-wide activity a bit early, but I got the gist of the message it was meant to convey: Invest in you. Take time to look at the areas in your life that need attention, and come up with a plan to improve them. Put in the hard work to make your life what you want it to be and you’ll reap the rewards. I thought this was an especially good way to end the conference because it wasn’t necessarily related to our diabetes. It was a reminder that we are MORE than our diabetes and that we, ultimately, have control on how to live our lives happily and fully.

This was the conference, from my perspective, in a nutshell.

A special thank you to Anna Norton from DiabetesSisters and Christel Marchand Aprigliano from DPAC/the Diabetes Collective for their efforts to make this weekend a success. Thank you to each of the speakers for being engaging and putting together magnificent presentations. I wish I could personally thank each and every single attendee for being an active participant and making this conference worthwhile. I’m extra grateful to the people who I got to make more personal connections with, and I’m looking forward to keeping in touch with them. Thanks to YOU, if you were at the conference, and are now reading this recap! I’d love to hear from you what your favorite parts were – please feel free to leave a comment about your experience. Here’s to connecting with more members of the incredible diabetes community.

Looking Back on my First Diabetes Conference

This post was originally published on July 18, 2013, on the ASweetLife website. Since I’m away on vacation this week, and it also happens to be the week of the 2020 CWD FFL conference, I thought it’d be fun to look back on the diabetes conferences I’ve attended in the last seven years. I got very nostalgic when reading this old post – all the feelings that I had during that week rushed back at me. To this day, I feel so lucky that I got to go and meet so many amazing people with diabetes – many of whom have literally become my friends for life. Read on for my full conference experience…

Children With Diabetes Friends for Life Conference 2013: A First-Timer’s Report

I was the kind of diabetic child who refused to attend any sort of diabetes camps or events. I always told myself, I don’t need any diabetic friends. I can do this by myself. And I wasn’t exactly alone with my diabetes. My mother has type 1 diabetes, too. We’ve always had a diabetic partnership, and for most of my life that has been enough of a support system for me.

However, as years have gone on I have become more comfortable with the diabetic part of my identity, so much so that I joined the College Diabetes Network (CDN) last year, an organization whose mission is to empower and improve the lives of students living with type 1 diabetes through peer support and access to information and resources. Through CDN I started meeting other diabetics my age, and was blown away by how refreshing it was to chat with them about the daily challenges of living with diabetes as a college student. And thanks to CDN, I learned about an opportunity to apply for a scholarship to attend the Children With Diabetes Friends for Life conference in Orlando, Florida. The CDN team, Christina Roth and Jo Treitman, encouraged me to go for it. This past April I applied, and by May, I had received the news that I was chosen as a scholarship recipient. I was overjoyed.

Looking Back on my First Diabetes Conference
I recreated my overjoyed reaction to receiving the scholarship almost immediately upon arriving to Disney. Here’s the photographic evidence.

Fast forward to July 10th, when I found myself sitting next to my father, the most wonderful traveling companion, on a plane. Our destination was the Coronado Springs Resort located in Disney World, where we would spend the next five days taking advantage of all the conference had to offer. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would I meet other people my age? Would I enjoy myself? Would I benefit from the conference? I was anxious, to say the least.

My concerns were allayed once I registered and saw a lobby full of conference attendees. I did my best to absorb the sea of faces before me: all of those people had something gigantic in common with me. It dawned on me that I would get to know some of them well over the course of the next few days, and I couldn’t wait to start the process of making some friends for life.

Before I go on, you might be wondering what exactly happens at a Children With Diabetes Friends for Life conference. In short, families or adults with type 1 gather to spend time together. Participants are are divided into groups by age. I was sorted into the college-age group, which was for 18-22 year olds.

For the duration of the conference, attendees are encouraged to participate in workshops that address a large variety of diabetes topics, like the latest technology for diabetics, dating and diabetes, starting a family with diabetes, and creating diabetes blogs. I had the pleasure of meeting Jessica Apple and Michael Aviad at the diabetes bloggers session, as well as fellow bloggers Kerri Sparling and Scott Johnson. As a relatively new diabetes blogger, I found this workshop to be enlightening as I listened to the advice other bloggers had to offer. I’m excited to explore the intriguing realm of diabetes blogs and gain insight that I can apply to my own blog.

As far as the social aspect of the conference was concerned, I hit it off immediately with several people at the college dinner that was held on Wednesday night. Each person I spoke to had a different perspective on what it was like to be a young adult with diabetes. I was impressed by the clear resilience and independence of the students around me, and I was truly pleased to learn that diabetes wasn’t the only thing we all had in common. Thursday night proved to be fantastic, too. We attended the Friends for Life banquet and ball, which was a full-fledged party with food, music, and dancing. Then my newfound friends and I ventured to Downtown Disney and had a blast soaking up the magic of Disney World and exchanging stories – both diabetes related and unrelated.

One story that I heard at the conference particularly moved me. I was at Brandy Barnes’ workshop about Women and Diabetes – another excellent session – when a diabetic woman sitting next to me became emotional as she spoke about her young daughter with diabetes. She explained how she was dealing with guilt, as she felt responsible for her daughter’s diabetes. She feared the consequences this would have on her little girl later on in life. I felt a compelling need to reach out to this woman and let her know everything would be okay. I spoke to her briefly after the workshop, and explained to her that my mom and I are a diabetic duo, too. I told her that when her daughter grows up she’ll be grateful for her support, knowledge, and perspective as a fellow diabetic with a deeper understanding of diabetes. My mom and I can attest to how even though diabetes has tried to knock us down over the years, we’ve taken control of it and become stronger as a result. I gave the woman my e-mail and the address to my blog, and if she is reading this now, I want her to know that I meant what I said: everything will be okay.

Looking back now with the eyes of someone who attended the Children with Diabetes Friends for Life conference I can say that I regret – to a certain degree – not attending camps when I was younger. Being around others with diabetes has given me greater awareness of what it means to live with diabetes. Additionally, I am feeling more inspired than ever as a diabetic and a writer to put my story out there and do anything I can help and impact others, all while listening to and learning from what others affected by diabetes have to say about it, too.

A Week Off

Starting tomorrow, I’m on vacation for a week – not from my blog, of course, but from my real-world job.

I’m headed to the beach for the week. It just so happens it’s also the week of the first virtual CWD FFL conference, which I plan on jumping in and out of throughout vacation.

Sun, Sand, Surf
I HOPE my week off involves all of the things in this photo – I’m looking at you, fancy coconut drink.

Like many other 2020 CWD FFL conference registrants, I have many mixed feelings about the conference turning virtual. I’m sad and disappointed that after a seven-year hiatus from conferences, I’m not able to make my IRL return to it this year. But I’m also exceptionally grateful that the CWD FFL staff made the call months ago to turn virtual because they recognized it would be safest for our at-risk population. I’ve been in awe over how quickly they made the transition from an enormous in-person event to an enormous-er virtual event – they’ve proven how effective they are at organizing this sort of thing, and I applaud everyone involved for their efforts.

My original plan was to attend the conference in-person this year while my family was at the beach for the week. But obviously, when the conference became virtual, I decided to tag along to the beach with my laptop in tow because I wanted the best of both worlds: family time and diabetes online community time.

Normally, I wouldn’t dream of packing a laptop along with my swimsuits and sunscreen, but even a trip to the beach looks a little different this year. I have no idea if my family and I will be able to even go to the same strip of sand and ocean without having to worry about things like too many people and not enough masks. We probably won’t be able to eat at many restaurants like we typically do on vacation; instead, we’ll likely cook a significantly higher percentage of our food at home. And we definitely won’t be able to peruse the shops like we have done every year since going to this particular beach town – we’ll have to be a little more creative when it comes to staying entertained.

It’s a weird adjustment to have to make, but I think we’re all in agreement that we’re just happy to have a safe place to get away to for a period of time. And I’m very glad to have the option to soak up the sun while also soaking up support, information, and friendship from the diabetes community.