Window of Opportunity: A Patient Story

By Sarah Senn

Nothing could stop Sharon from enjoying life. From her budding career to her passion for hiking, Sharon was at the top of her game. But at 34, Sharon’s life changed. She was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

For Sharon, the active lifestyle of Santa Monica, California, is exciting. Before her diagnosis, Sharon was a true career woman. She worked for an education company coordinating inner-city education programs nationwide. Although the job was often stressful, she enjoyed the day-to-day challenges and traveling for her job. Sharon has always been driven and was searching for other ways to expand her career. With a background in holistic health, Sharon was excited to be given an opportunity to open a wellness center with a local physician. The strain of juggling the two jobs sent Sharon’s immune system over the edge.

During a business trip in May 2009, Sharon noticed something different. On the first day of the trip, her vision was blurry and by the end of the trip, she could not see well enough to drive. When she got home, Sharon’s mother, who has type 2 diabetes, suggested that Sharon test her blood sugar level. Her blood sugar level was more than 320 mg/dL.

Sharon made an appointment with the doctor right away. Blood tests showed that Sharon’s pancreas was not functioning properly. She had type 1 diabetes.

“At 5 ft 8 ½ in and 120 lbs, I thought I was healthy. I was eating right and staying fit. I didn’t know I could get type 1 diabetes,” she said.

Sharon’s diagnosis was heartbreaking to her at first. She went from diagnosis to denial. Sharon thought she was doing everything right. She went to yoga classes weekly and ate nearly a vegetarian diet. When she wasn’t working, Sharon was hiking, her favorite pastime.

At age 34, Sharon and her husband, Lou, were thinking about starting a family, but when she was diagnosed with diabetes, she was unsure if this would be possible.

“Emotionally, I felt like I was damaged goods,” she said.

About a month after being diagnosed, while on a typical hiking venture in Sequoia National Park, Sharon met a group of hikers from Stanford who told her about a study related to diabetes and stem cell research. Sharon has always been passionate about research and understanding her health. She contacted Stanford about enrolling in the study. However, if she was accepted as a study participant, Sharon would have to put the plans for having a family on hold for at least two years. Although it was a tough decision, and uncertain of whether they would still be able to have children in a few years, Sharon and her husband, Lou, decided it was best for her health to participate in the study.

She went through various levels of study screenings, but during the final screening she was removed from the study because she had something wrong with her lungs, but it was unrelated to diabetes. Another setback—Sharon was devastated, but now she was even more determined not to let diabetes slow her down.

“You have to take responsibility for what happens to you,” she explains.

In just over two months after being diagnosed, her blood sugar levels were under control and her A1c level had fallen to 5.7. Sharon decided to focus on her health and managing her condition. Inspired by her diabetes, she stopped working full time and decided to become certified as a yoga instructor. She now teaches yoga every morning and she hikes three times a week.

Sharon has been working with her endocrinologist [en-doh-cri-NA-lo-jist] to determine the treatment that is best for her. At first, Sharon managed her condition through individual insulin injections multiple times daily. But with an active lifestyle, she found an insulin pump works best. Admittedly, Sharon was concerned about using an insulin pump to control her condition.

“At first I thought that the pump would be like being on life support, but now it has become second nature,” she said. “It’s helped me find my new normal.”

She has turned to others who have type 1 diabetes for advice on nutrition and management techniques.

Sharon has also found new hope for an old dream. Shortly after learning that she would not be able to take part in the Stanford study, she found out about a study with the Sansum Diabetes Clinic for women with diabetes who are trying to conceive. Sharon qualified as a study participant, and she is looking forward to starting a family within the next year.

While she calls her journey over the last year an “emotional rollercoaster,” Sharon finds comfort in what she’s learned about herself.

“I can’t say that I’m glad I was diagnosed; I roll with the punches,” she admits. “But if I have to find the silver lining, it’s the realization of how precious our lives are. Diabetes opened a window for me.”