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4 Notes from the Students with Diabetes Conference

Jun 19, 2013

For the third year, young people from around the country gathered in Tampa for the Students With Diabetes National Conference -- a chance for them to find out what they need to do to handle the challenges of growing up with a disease that can take up a good portion of their time and energy.

More than 120 people from 23 states and three countries attended the three-day event hosted by USF earlier this month at the Sheraton Suites Tampa Airport Westshore.

Formed in 2010 by USF Health's Bringing Science Home and Miss America 1999 Nicole Johnson, SWD has already expanded to 30 college campuses nationwide. You can get a look inside the Conference on for this week's University Beat, but here's four things to take away from their weekend of friendship, fun and facts:

1. Johnson is a diabetic dynamo.Equal parts cheerleader (posing for pictures with students wearing her Miss America crown or donning a blue wig at the Conference's "Blue Party") and educator (she'll receive her Doctor of Public Health degree from USF this summer), SWD fulfills a goal Johnson has had since being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes while an undergraduate at USF: give young diabetics the tools they need to grow up happy and healthy.

“Diabetes isn’t one-dimensional and part of what we try to emphasize is quality of life, and so we’re trying to get so many different aspects of life," Johnson said. "We’re trying to hit the relational side, we’re trying to hit the practical, educational need for information side, we’re trying to hit the creative, alternative realities of parties and social life and work realities with the disease."

"And then at the same time, from the university perspective, we’re trying to gather data and information about the thoughts, the feelings, the needs, the wants of this specific population, so that we can then send that forward in the literature and help more people develop programs and services for these kinds of populations.”

2. For some young people, the group's importance can't be overstated. Hannah Hamlin, 21, a Type 1 diabetic since the age of 13, says it was a difficult task adjusting to life away from home when she started studying at Texas A & M University.

“There really was kind of a big change when I moved to college and started making all my own meals and it was just a lot to take on, cooking and counting carbs and taking insulin and trying to study for class, and all of that kind of could be a little overwhelming," Hamlin said.

But the conference opened the college senior's eyes.

"Knowing other successful students that are Type 1 diabetics really kind of inspire you and give you a sense of universality like you’re not alone, you’re not the only one," said Hamlin, who plans to start a Students With Diabetes' chapter at her school. "It’ll probably benefit me all year, something I can look back and reflect on and help me through those hard times, knowing that there’s other people out there being successful at doing the same things.”

In addition, SWD hooked Hamlin up with a summer internship with a Houston healthcare provider.

3. SWD doesn't leave "Type 3s" behind. "Type 3 diabetics," the family members and friends of diabetics, were welcome to join in the larger group activities, while also holding separate meetings to discuss their own feelings about dealing with the disease. For some, like 25-year-old Greg Stone of Orlando, this was his first chance to really meet and talk seriously with other "Type 3s."

“I’m sure that the Type 1s, the Type 2s, they want to get their significant others involved, they want to have them more aware," said Stone, whose wife, Rachelle, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes 14 years ago. "And sometimes they might have the way to present (information about the disease) or get their loved ones educated on certain things, so this organization branching out to the Type 3s is a really good way to do it."

4. The Artificial Pancreas may be a game-changer. One of the Conference highlights was hearing from Dr. Aaron Kowalski, a JDRF researcher, about the Artificial Pancreas (see video below for more information), a smartphone app that monitors a person’s glucose level and then triggers an insulin pump they’re wearing.

"Ultimately glucose control is what drives diabetes complications and people with diabetes need to get their glucose levels as close to normal as possible, but also do it in a way that makes life easier," Kowalski said. "So our Artificial Pancreas project is trying to do both of those, automate some of the insulin delivery, making glucose control better and then ultimately easing some of the burden of living with diabetes.”

The Artificial Pancreas is currently the subject of clinical trials in Europe, with similar tests scheduled for the U.S. next spring. Kowalski, who's also a Type 1 diabetic, says the device could eventually help cut healthcare costs, as some studies show as much as a third of Medicare spending currently goes to treating diabetes and its complications.

“We know that we can reduce (complications) significantly with better glucose control, so what we believe and what we’re seeing in these tests is with the improvements in glucose control, you’ll save healthcare dollars.”