When Carol Atkinson left the workforce at the time her third child was born more than two decades ago, she never thought she would wind up in charge of a diabetes non-profit that has touched countless lives in part by coordinating an award-winning response to emergencies created by natural disasters.
But as current director of the Insulin For Life USA organization, that's exactly where the Gainesville, FL, woman has found herself, alongside her husband, Dr. Mark Atkinson.
Their Florida based non-profit rose to the occasion during the sequential natural disasters in 2017 that rocked the Gulf Coast and Caribbean islands. As a result of the millions of people touched by their work with their multi-partner Diabetes Emergency Response Coalition (DERC), IFL-USA has recently received two prestigious awards: the American Diabetes Association's historic Humanitarian Award, and the top honor from the American Society of Association Executives.
Together, the DERC group was able to provide more than 4,600 pounds of diabetes supplies and medication -- from glucose meters and strips, syringes, pens, insulin and more -- to million impacted by last year's natural disasters.
Of course, Carol says the groups were just doing what was clearly necessary in dire circumstances.
"While we're flattered and humbled, it's truly a huge team effort and the a result of the Diabetes Community coming together. We're just fortunate enough to be a part of something wonderful, and we're so grateful," she says.
We've reported on IFL-USA's natural disaster response as part of our periodic "Diabetes In Disaster Mode" series here at the 'Mine. And today, we'd like to dig a little deeper into what the organization is all about.
"Falling Into" Full-Time Relief
Carol says she and her husband Mark never really planned to be on this path, but just kind of fell into it.
Mark is a pioneer in the diabetes research field based at the University of Florida, and aside from his mentoring and achievements he's best-known for establishing in 1997 the Network for Pancreatic Organ Donors (nPOD), which has become a world-leading tissue donation bank studying the panceas in T1D. He and Carol have been married for more than three decades now, and they thought maybe someday at retirement, they might be able to focus on taking mission trips to help patients in need around the world. But it ended up happening far sooner than they expected.
They began taking these trips after being contacted in the mid-90s by a global organization doing short-term medical missions to Haiti, the Philippines and other impoverished parts of the world. They've made more than a dozen trips since, to various countries where they help train local physicians, mobilize relief teams by setting up small local clinics and helping people who are in the most dire situations -- such as a woman who needed an amputation and could barely access insulin.
"But she had such a positive attitude despite her situation," Carol says. "It was an amazing experience, surprising in many ways, and it was a great foundation for what we do now."
The Story of Insulin For Life - USA
Founded in August 2012, the IFL-USA is nearing its sixth anniversary this summer and will soon be starting up its seventh full year.
Led by the Atkinson husband-wife pair, the non-profit is an American offshoot of the larger Insulin For Life Global organization that originally began in Australia. Their shared mission is to provide necessary medications and supplies to PWDs (people with diabetes) around the world, who lack access -- whether from severe financial limitations, geographic and cultural factors, or emergency situations created by natural disasters. They collect and donate a variety of diabetes essentials (insulin, glucose meters and strips, lancets, syringes, glucagon kits, etc.) often working with professional agencies and healthcare professionals to distribute these items.
"It's never enough, and I'm always pushing harder for more, but our group has been absolutely tremendous," Carol says, noting that they do all they can to avoid situations like someone having to reuse a syringe until it gets so dull it tears the skin. "We try to make an impact for people."
The group now has partners in 16 countries and reaches thousands of people per year; though it's tough to obtain the exact metrics, conservative estimates from years past were upwards of 5,000 or 6,000 people helped annual. No doubt, that number has only increased over time, especially with their enrmous efforts to respond to natural disasters.
That latter aspect is what has earned IFL-USA this latest humanitarian recognition.
The org was instrumental in coordinating emergency relief during Autumn 2017, after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria struck the Gulf Coast region, Puerto Rico and Caribbean islands.
The DERC -- which included the American Diabetes Association, American Association of Diabetes Educators, JDRF, Endocrine Society, American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, T1D Exchange, and Research!America -- made an incredible effort to help as quickly as possible. Insulin For Life USA led the charge on collecting and distributing over 4,800 pounds of D-supplies to millions of impacted people.
IFL USA also provided relief later in the year during the devastating wildfires on the West Coast.
Diabetes Needs During 2017 Disasters
A tiny little town in eastern Texas stands out as symbolic of all the D-Community experienced during last year's tragic disasters, and how IFL-USA was so heavily involved in offering help.
Wharton is 60 miles south of downtown Houston, along the Interstate 69 corridor, with a population of less than 10,000. But a whopping 85% of residents there live with either type 1 or type 2 diabetes (!). It's a diverse population -- 40% Hispanic, 30% African-American, and 30% Caucasian -- largely low-income and working poor, farmers, ranch workers and small business owners who don't have health insurance.
With very few resources existing in Wharton to begin with, you can only imagine how it played out after hurricane Harvey hit, when the flooding began thanks to the nearby Colorado River overflowing and filling Wharton's streets. So many people were left homeless without any belongings -- of course including the insulin and other medical supplies critical for life with diabetes.
It took 13 hours from the time of the first call to get supplies where they were needed most over that holiday weekend.
"That's a beautiful picture of the community really rising up to help, to get this done and be there for these people," Carol says. "It wasn't one person or organization; it was a group, team working together. That's an amazing thing and we're fortunate to be a part of that. I don't take that lightly."
Puerto Rico, on the other hand, was a completely different experience, she says. With a wave of stroms on the way, there was only a short period of time in between in which they could proactively connect with a local doctor to coordinate getting supplies on the ground before the third storm came through.
And Carol points out that in the aftermath of Irma hitting Florida, they were worried about Gainesville being struck by the storm and impeding their relief efforts outside the U.S. mainland.
While the IFL-USA offices in Florida didn't see any devastation or lose power, Carol notes that her own home about 10 minutes away lost power for more than a week and many others locally were hit by the storm damage.
"Our neighborhood was definitely impacted by the storm, while we were still here trying to take care of others. That was an interesting time."
Diabetes Emergency Preparedness, Always
It comes down to emergency preparedness, Carol says, which is something that PWDs and their families should proactively think about.
Those who live in disaster-prone areas might be more prone to prep, but really everyone should have emergency plans in place, she notes.
The DERC coalition is working to build a permanent infrastructure for emergency preparedness with three prongs:
- create an emergency plan with a continuously updated recommended emergency D-kit list of supplies and documents to include;
- help train healthcare providers to have these resources on hand, and to help educate their patients and communities;
- establish a phone hotline of 1-314-INSULIN that allows HCPs to reach coalition volunteers to find out more about getting diabetes supplies where they are urgently needed.
Currently, Carol says she looks to resources like the My Diabetes Emergency Plan site for the best guidance in creating an emergency plan, checklist of medications and supplies, and generally what to do in case of an emergency.
If You Can Help... The Time is Now
You may not be aware that hurricane season begins June 1 of each year (!), so now is the ideal time to donate and help, if you're able.
Carol says their group and global partners are always monitoring weather forecasts for potential tropical storms or natural disasters that could strike at any moment, and they require a constant flow of diabetes donations because of the sudden urgency in time of crisis.
"It's an ongoing strain and you have to have a supply to pull from, so that consistent stream coming in is what makes it possible for us to have that kind of rapid response. My hope is that (the recent awards) help raise the profile, so people know about us and how to help out."
If you or anyone you know has access to supplies that aren't needed, please donate soon before the item goes to waste or expires and can't be used in a moment of mobilization.
To donate, check out the specific requirements and donation processes at the Insulin For Life - USA website.
For our part, we're proud to see how our D-Community has responded to disasters and applaud IFL-USA and partners for all they've done over the years. We hope that spirit of cooperation continues, whatever the future may bring.