I guess you could say we're lucky to have diabetes in an era when people get rewarded for reaching above and beyond the norm while living with this disease. Years ago, who ever singled people out for being inspirational with a chronic illness? Nowadays, we've got the Joslin Center honoring folks for longevity with diabetes, Animas Corp. and dLife showcasing diabetes heroes, Bayer with their Dream Fund contest, and as of last year, perhaps the most moving of them all, the new Inspired by Diabetes competition organized by Eli Lilly and the International Diabetes Federation (IDF).
The reason I find this one moving is that it's a creative expression competition that encourages anyone touched by diabetes (not just patients) to share their stories through visual and written works — essays, poems, art or photography. I bet the organization had no idea what to expect when the entries started pouring in last winter. By the end of March, they had 800 submissions from all over the world, including photos, essays, poems, paintings, and two music compositions. "Some of them just made your heart jump," a contest spokeswoman told me last week.
Equally inspirational is the fact that in conjunction with this contest, Eli Lilly & Co. has made a $50,000 donation to ADA for scholarships for low-income children to attend ADA diabetes camps. For each entry into the global contest, Lilly is donating money to IDF's Life for a Child Program, which provides life-saving diabetes supplies to more than 1,000 children in 17 developing countries.
Of course I realize that the contest embodies a big PR campaign for Eli Lilly, with former American-Idol contestant Elliott Yamin (who has type 1 diabetes) acting as the program's Global Ambassador. I got to interview him in person at the ADA Conference last week along with two of the four grand prize winners. From where I sit, despite the obvious self-promotion, it's still a wonderful thing the company has done here, pulling together a worldwide program to call attention to life with diabetes (the good and the bad), and those who need help with it the most.
Four judges from the American Diabetes Association — including one mother and daughter pair — culled through all the entries in the last months and rated them on four criteria: relevance, originality, creativity, and narrative. The four "grand prize" winners were officially unvieled at the Eli Lilly booth at the ADA Conference last Sunday.
The day before, on Saturday, I was privileged to meet two of the winners, along with goodwill ambassador Elliott (e-Train) Yamin himself in a personal briefing at the Prescott Boutique hotel near San Francisco's swanky Union Square.
We were ushered in to a small and quite modest suite with an entourage of PR chaperones. We waited in awkward silence until a silly three-tap knock came at the door. When it swung open, the baseball cap Yamin wore that day and lopsided grin immediately broke the ice. He's smaller and more compact in person than I would've imagined, but also more athletic-looking, and well... just very much a regular guy. If you didn't know, you'd never imagine he could sing like that!
He told us how he's been selling blue-circle Tshirts at his concerts, and how some fans actually threw their insulin pumps and glucometers up on stage. "That probably wasn't a really good idea," he laughed — a raspy chuckle. He listened attentively and nodded in all the right places as we talked with the winners.
And those winners are, by category...
Child with Diabetes — Erin Tetreault, Idaho
A sweet, creative 17-year-old diagnosed with diabetes at age 9. She's quite an artist, working with a variety of materials and genres. When she heard about the contest at her mainstay diabetes summer camp, Hodia (for Idaho and diabetes mashed together and backwards, or something like that), she was inspired to express what its like to live with diabetes in the oil painting below, which she calls "Self-Acceptance."
"Four years ago I would have been too self-conscious to paint my bare stomach with my pump proudly displayed," she wrote the narrative she submitted with the picture. But because of diabetes camp, "I've learned to be myself and not worry if I'm different or not accepted."
Sitting on the couch at the Prescott, she smiled at no one in particular and said, "People with diabetes need a lot more emotional help - not just with the physical side of it. They need to feel like they're not alone." Looking on, Erin's mom was in tears. Needless to say, I was a mess.
Health Care Professional — Theresa Garnero, California
Theresa is a nurse and diabetes educator -- National 2004-2005 Diabetes Educator of the Year -- who works at California Pacific Medical Center here in San Francisco. She draws diabetes cartoons for various medical publications including Diabetes Health, and seems to have about a million fun ideas about how to get people feeling better and being more active with their diabetes. I can't believe I had never met her before.
Sitting next to me on the couch, I'd met my match in terms of dry humor and snappy remarks. Turns out Theresa has a past as a competitive figure skater. Wow. Now she's a self-described "diabetes junkie" who's always looking for ways to make diabetes more palatable. "My mission in life is to try to inject a little humor in this thing," she said. I noticed Yamin was grinning ear to ear.
Theresa won this contest for her design of a playful kids' game, "Pin the Pancreas on the Piggy" (piggy as in early source of insulin for people with diabetes). My kids thankfully don't have the Big D, but I had to fight them off the piggy game to get a good look at it myself.
The next day in the Lilly booth I had a quick exchange with the remaining two winners:
Family Member or Friend — Teresa Ollila, Colorado
I know many of you guys have seen Theresa's knock-out photography work. She's a mother of two who was inspired by her son's diabetes diagnosis at age 3. A professional photographer, she decided to pursue "real images — not those slick, smiling-happy images you see all over the commercials," she told me. Her winning collection of photographs is aptly titled "Living with Diabetes." Be prepared to sit down when you see it.
Adult with Diabetes — Betsy Ray, Colorado
Betsy just seems like one of those people who eats life. I literally only had about 3 minutes with her, but her energy and focus just shine. She's had diabetes for 43 years (!), and is now working on a master's degree in psychology "to serve as a resource to newly-diagnosed children with diabetes." She says her whole family was touched by diabetes, and explains her inborn desire to help others in her winning essay called "The Journey."
"Diabetes has grown my spirit in a way that no normal life ever could... It is so far beyond what I was told my life would be that I can only respond to the people I meet by telling them 'Anything is possible. You are on a journey. How you define it is up to you," she wrote in her moving poem. Take a read:
These people are truly inspirational. No arguments there. I heard their stories of struggling with diabetes, and I felt happy to count them as my diabetic kin.
And it was Yamin who put it all in perspective: "I just wish more people would step up and do more. We need to get away from these misconceptions about diabetes... Doing this competition is cool because it gives other people a way to identify diabetes with a face, with a real person they can admire."
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Speaking of inspirational contests, the DiabetesMine Design Challenge winners will be announced this Friday, June 20. Be there.