Andy Suhy may be the first professional athlete to change his career to professional cheerleader.
The retired professional hockey player, part-time motivational speaker, and MBA business-finance guru has set his sights on building a diabetes management service featuring an approach he calls "more impactful than what exists today."
He has the experience. Now in his early 40s, Andy was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 15, just when he was starting high school. At that time, he was already deep into playing competitive hockey and was in the early stages of pursuing potential college scholarships. His dream: playing for the National Hockey League.
"If you believe in stats alone, you would have thought that my diagnosis was going to be a major impediment to the pursuit of my dreams. It turned out to be the exact opposite," Andy says.
Our team at the 'Mine first met Andy back in May 2012 at a JDRF event in the Detroit, Michigan area, where he was telling his story and talking up his newest venture. Mike sat in on his session, and we couldn't wait to follow up about his new diabetes management program (he's a busy guy, so it took a little time to track him down).
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When we finally did get a phone interview with Andy, what he told us was that he wanted to play hockey. Period. And diabetes wasn't going to stop him. Becoming what he calls an "exercise and fitness fanatic," he maintained the discipline to achieve his dreams and go on to play for the Detroit Red Wings.
He was drafted and played for two years with the Red Wings from 1992 to 1994. Later, Andy left pro hockey, not as a result of diabetes but "because I didn't have the talent." He ended up working in the financial industry and living in Toledo, Ohio.
That started the next chapter of his life, focusing more on diabetes management. The part that fascinates us...
Rules of D-Engagement
In 2010, Andy founded Type1Rules, a diabetes management coaching program for kids and families. His teachings there are based on three basic rules: make diabetes a positive force in your life; eliminate lifestyle limitations through successful D-management; and strive for excellence rather than perfection.
Andy describes diabetes as a "very complicated balancing act" that's 95% about emotions and taking ownership, and only 5% about carb-counting and insulin dosing. He personally tests 15-20 times a day, usually in clusters after exercising or eating to get a CGM-style trending picture of what his blood sugars are doing. Andy says diabetes has been a positive force in his life and that without his diagnosis he probably wouldn't have made it into pro hockey at all.
Andy says nowadays, he's in much demand to speak about diabetes from an in-the-trenches perspective.
"My favorite thing to do is talk about diabetes. I love talking, sharing, getting people on a path to successful management," says Andy, who considers himself one of "the foremost experts in diabetes management." (Wow!)
Andy says he wants to change the mindset of type 1 management. He's laid out his approach in a pair of eBooks: Type1Rules Diabetes Management Guidebook for adults, and the Diabetes Defender Kids' Workbook, aimed at kids.
His guidebook is a colorful graphic-heavy 32-page PDF-only eBook, priced rather steeply at $19.95. It is well-written, brief, and easy to read. Andy sent me a complimentary copy and I enjoyed it a great deal, but I think I would have felt cheated if I'd had to cough up the price equivalent to six gallons of gas for it.
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Andy has formalized his approach by establishing three "Core Principles" plus rules to live by. They are Acknowledge the Realities, practice a Low-Impact Diet, and engage in Rigorous Testing and Adjustment.
In my own words, acknowledging realities means you need to pull on your big-boy or big-girl pants and take ownership of your diabetes. Andy isn't saying diabetes sets limits, but in his opinion it does require absolute, constant attention. As to diet, he doesn't believe in the "eat anything and cover it with insulin" mantra (more on that below.) And when Andy talks about "rigorous" testing, he isn't kidding. He tests his blood sugar 20 times a day in what he calls "clusters," with 2-3 tests within 15-20 minutes — testing in pairs taken to extremes. In Andy's words, "Sugar levels rarely remain parked at one level. They are constantly ebbing and flowing, and a cluster test provides information on level, direction, and velocity of movement." He doesn't use a CGM because he doesn't want "something attached to him," but he has very clearly embraced the Tao of CGM.
Living by Andy's Rules
Building on his Core Principles, Andy has his Type1Rules that he personally lives by daily.
For example, his first rule is basically that diabetes doesn't cause complications, rather letting it run amok does. "Failure to acknowledge and efficiently manage type 1 diabetes causes complications," he says, echoing Dr. Bill Polonsky's well-publicized quote: "Well-managed diabetes is the leading cause of absolutely nothing."
Old news? Maybe not.
Think about what would happen if no one had ever told you that? Consider how powerful that simple message is — the notion that ugly complications are NOT inevitable. How liberating. And the sad truth, Andy says, is that in most groups he's addressed this simple, powerful truth had never been spoken before. It was news to his audience — news that brought tears to many eyes.
Some of Andy's rules are simple common sense: Always have emergency sugar on hand. Don't eat the way you did when your pancreas worked. Keep all your supplies with you. But others are more outside of the box: Never use diabetes as an excuse for anything. Never assume that the same actions will produce the same results every time. And my favorite: "Strive for excellence, but don't use perfection as your goal, and don't beat yourself up on those days when tight control is a battle."
The rest of his "book" is a series of worksheets to help PWDs personalize a management plan for themselves.
Vision or Mirage?
The Type1Rules website speaks of portals, community, mobile Apps, and partnering with insurance, pharma, and healthcare providers. It has a rather utopian sound to it. But there's not much evidence that any of it is actually happening yet. It struck me as more of a wish-list, or perhaps a blueprint of where he's headed, than a snapshot of where he is today.
With money and time, Andy sees a future in which Type1Rules will be "the #1 brand in independent diabetes management."
He's pinning part of his hopes for his future empire on taking his type 1 experiences and trying to apply them to the larger market of type 2s. Andy believes his approach is "translatable" to type 2s, but I doubt it.
Missing the Cardinal Rule
I love Andy's passion and commitment, and the work he's doing to assist and motivate people with type 1 diabetes. Where he seems to fall short, however, is on reaching "across the aisle" to the larger community of type 2s.
While there's no doubt he's an expert in living with type 1, I think Andy shows the same kind of ignorance about type 2 that most non-diabetics show about diabetes in general. In his book, he dismisses type 2 diabetes as being "due to a variety of lifestyle dynamics," and specifically states: "Type 2 diabetes is often a function of poor diet, sedentary life style, and obesity." His stance appears to be: If type 2s simply adopted his Low-Impact diet, basically everything would be fine.
Well, no, Mr. Suhy, that's not the case. Yes, "lifestyle dynamics" can be factors in the development of type 2. But they aren't the sole cause. This line of thinking adds to the divide between type 1s and type 2s, IMHO, and ignores current medical thinking about genetic factors.
Andy seems to have zero grasp on the perfect storm of genetic, biologic, hormonal, societal, cultural, economic, and environmental factors that drive type 2 diabetes. Despite that lack of understanding across the diabetes-types board, Andy's heart does seem to be in the right place. And it's tough to criticize a fellow PWD who just wants to help others and encourages them to see diabetes as a positive, not a negative.
Still, we have to be united in our front against diabetes — of all types. None of us can afford to have a "blame the patient" attitude, because that affects everyone.
And you can't be a good cheerleader if you don't like the team.