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.

What Every Parent of a T1D Child Needs to Know

I may not be the parent of a T1D child, but I am the T1D child of my parents. So I have a unique perspective on the concerns and fears that a parent of a T1D child might have.

I also have a little more insight on these concerns and fears through my interactions with many parents of T1D children over the years. These parents had children of all ages: from toddler to teenager. Their children ranged from newly diagnosed with diabetes to multi-year veteran of T1D. Despite these differences in ages and years with diabetes, they’ve all had something major in common: An intense fear over the day when their child would make the transition from living under their roof to living independently, on a college campus or in another living situation.

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The mere thought of their beloved son or daughter going through this was enough to make some of these parents on the verge of tears. It was heartbreaking, but also somewhat confusing to me. I understand the unconditional love that parents have for their children, so naturally, they were terrified at the thought of their children feeling alone as they made the transition to young adulthood, or frightened by the prospect of their children suddenly not wanting to take care of their diabetes anymore. But what I didn’t get was why they automatically assumed the worst.

What if their child thrived in this transition? What if their child found a wonderful group of people, such as the College Diabetes Network, that helped them through this period in life (like I did)? What if their child was ready to manage everything on his or her own? Certainly, it would be a source of pride for a parent to witness his or her child do well and embrace independence.

On the flip side, if a young adult with T1D struggled to make the transition smooth…well, I told many of these parents that it’s okay. Because I struggled. A lot, actually. But I made it through. The longer I spent away from home, the more I realized that it was time for me to hold myself accountable in terms of diabetes management. There was never really any big “aha” moment for me. It was more of a slow-and-steady recognition of the fact that the shitty blood sugars I was constantly dealing with could only be changed by me, and me alone. So I took the steps I needed to; naturally, with the support of my parents.

I guess that’s kind of the two-fold message I’m trying to convey here to worried parents of T1D children: 1) Have faith in your child’s ability to adapt to change, and 2) Never underestimate how your support, in any form, can mean the world to your child. Don’t be afraid to have conversations with him/her so you can get on the same page and understand how you’re both feeling about this new life stage. That way, you can find out exactly what kind of support you can offer to your child that he/she will find most helpful.

The bottom line: Parents with T1D children, it’ll be okay. Just like people with diabetes know they’re not alone in their struggle against it, you should also know that there are many other parents out there who probably feel the same as you.

In that way, we’re never truly alone when dealing with new challenges or changes in our lives. Once that’s realized, it becomes a million times easier to figure out the best way to tackle them with your support system by your side.

Diabetes Connections: Gym Edition

“Are you a diabetic?” Despite the fact that I was wearing earbuds, I heard the question that was undoubtedly being directed toward me.

I glanced to my right and met the gaze of the teenage girl on the treadmill next to me. I smiled, tugging an earbud out, and said, “Yes, I am. My OmniPod gave it away, didn’t it?”

She nodded eagerly. “I have a Medtronic pump, but I know what an OmniPod looks like. When I saw it, I had to say something to you.”

This marked the beginning of what wound up being a thirty minute interaction with Shae, a high school senior with bucketloads of energy and questions for me about life with diabetes. We specifically chatted about college, and I couldn’t resist telling her all about the College Diabetes Network and what a useful tool it was for me during my three and a half years at UMass. The more we spoke, the more it felt like I was looking at a mirror image of myself from seven years ago. She had just finished taking her AP Psych exam and was relieved it was done. Her senior prom was in a few days, and she described how she’d wear her pump while donning her fancy gown. She was excited about college, but a little nervous about the dreaded “Freshman 15” and whether her diabetes would adjust well to college dining halls.

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It’s so funny to think how something as crappy as diabetes can introduce so many amazing people into your life.

I did my best to answer Shae’s rapid-fire questions frankly but reassuringly. As I told her about how much my CGM helped me in college (especially since I was still on multiple daily injection therapy at that time), she exclaimed that I was inspiring her to want to give her CGM another shot (pun unintended – I love spontaneous diabetes humor).

As we parted ways, we both grinned broadly and wished one another well. This is why moments like this – diabetes in the wild – are so great. Diabetes instantly bonds you to a stranger who you might not otherwise ever interact with, and the beauty in that immediate connection is priceless.