One of the social media platforms that's taken off in the diabetes space lately is the photo-sharing app Instagram, which clearly isn't "just for fun" these days with many brands investing in reaching customers there.
Turns out it lends itself incredibly well to sharing lots of aspects of living with diabetes too!
Today, we're thrilled to feature D-peep Laura Pavlakovich, a 26-year-old in California who's been living with type 1 since pre-school and has a particular skillset in photojournalism. She's created the You're Just My Type non-profit org that is photo-centered and very active on Instagram, and she's also compiling a photography book that should be available later this year.
A Chat with Instagram Stand-Out Laura Pavlakovich
DM) Hi Laura. First off, we understand there's some mystery surrounding your diabetes diagnosis?
LP) Yes, this is the best time to set the record straight about my diagnosis story that I’ve only shared in bits and pieces until now because I really don’t even remember it. The only family history I’m aware of is one of my dad’s cousins. After some research and long conversations with my parents, I finally have all the facts (at least recounted by my mother, since I truly don’t have any recollection regarding my diagnosis).
I was in pre-school and my mom and I would walk up a hill everyday to get to class. Suddenly, I began to be too weak to walk up the hill on my own and my mom would have to carry me. I had pretty textbook symptoms, including constant urination. My mom noticed every time she had to use the bathroom, I would go with her because I had to go too. Soon after, she took me on a trip to Oregon and remembers me wetting the bed many times, after being potty trained for so long.
One day I was so thirsty, I grabbed a 12 oz bottle of water and chugged it until it was empty, then slammed it on the table and said “I want more!” A couple months had gone by and that’s when she really noticed more symptoms: exhaustion, extreme thirst, and the constant urination and yeast infections. My mom called my doctor because she knew something wasn’t right. She recalls me being one of the lucky ones, though, because I was never ‘sick.' I was still out playing every day and enjoying my childhood, with none of the common flu-like symptoms.
When I was taken to my pediatrician, she didn't know what was wrong with me. The doctor did NOT do a finger stick. In fact, she told my parents she would need to do a fasting glucose test on me and sent me home. My parents were ordered to not let me drink water or eat food for 12 hours before coming back in the morning for a blood test. Apparently I was crying and screaming for water all night due to my unbearable thirst.
I went back the next morning for the finger test and it came back with a blood sugar around 800. My doctor didn’t know what to do and we waited for an hour in the waiting room while she made phone calls. She came out saying she found a place with the best care and we went straight to Children’s Hospital to meet the specialists waiting for us. They taught us how to give me shots and sent us home with a 24-hour nurse support line to call if we had any questions.
The rest is history.
We know you're all about the visual side of diabetes, so we're happy to share the 2-minute video you made to share your diabetes story, too...
Based on that early missed diagnosis, any thoughts on advocacy / initiatives that call for better screening tests by pediatricians?
My mother and I agree that the most important thing any pediatrician should have is a glucometer that they should feel free to use liberally. There is no reason any child with type 1 should be put through any more unneeded suffering than they already are while trying to figure out what’s wrong with them before doing an initial finger stick.
Can you share more about the Hot Shots group (mentioned in your video)?
My parents started a support group for kids and families of T1Ds called the South Bay Hot Shots. They put an ad in the local paper and told the nearby hospital about it to spread the word. They found a park that let us use an indoor space and they didn’t charge them because they supported the cause.
We met once a month for a few years and the concept was simple -- the parents would talk and vent, and the kids would play. I specifically remember having little talent shows and one of the boys showed us how he could give himself a shot in his arm using nothing but his mouth!
Did you always share your life with diabetes, or did you keep it quiet at first? When did you find the Diabetes Online Community (DOC)?
My diabetes was never something I led with. It was so deep a part of me that it never seemed necessary to talk about it all the time. To me, it would have felt like talking about how my hair is brown to everyone I met. It wasn’t a big deal to me and I didn’t want to make it a big deal to anyone else.
I think in the 5 years of having my personal social media account, I’ve posted maybe 3 photos that have mentioned my disease. I never followed any diabetes accounts because I didn’t know they existed. I wasn’t introduced to the DOC until around 2016, when I started @You’reJustMyType on Instagram.
And now that I’m immersed in it, I have found my best and deepest friendships. I have a group chat with two of my closest type 1 friends where we can share our daily struggles and victories and encourage each other through our high and low blood sugars.
Sounds like social media has changed your life...
Yes, I have been given this amazing platform. Although I feel so undeserving, I promise to only use it for good. I promise to do the best I can to help everyone who reaches out in need of supplies and support and answers. And I feel pretty confident that I’ve been doing just that.
How did diabetes influence your career decision-making?
Growing up with diabetes, it was never this life-changing event that left me with the need or passion to advocate for it or have it be involved in any other aspect of my life. The thought of a career having to do with type 1 diabetes had never crossed my mind -- not even once, in fact, it didn’t even sound appealing. My life and this disease were so separate, little did I know, that was about to drastically change in my adult life.
When did you take an interest in photography?
I began taking photography classes in high school and really enjoyed the fact that even though I wasn’t a great writer, I was still able to tell stories with simply an image. My major dive into photography and traveling go hand in hand. I attended a photojournalism program after high school that was focused on injustice and poverty. I was given the opportunity to photograph children in Bedouin villages in Egypt, shoot the conditions of the lives of prostitutes in Paris, fight against human trafficking and child prostitution in Thailand, and work at an orphanage in China. All using photographs to send a message. I believe after going through such an intense experience, there was no turning back with using this powerful gift to spread awareness about all the “unseen” in this world.
So is photography now your full-time day job?
I do not do photography for a living. I actually nanny. I only do side jobs for professional assignments every so often. I run the Instagram / nonprofit just as much as I work my "paid" job! No days off!
How did You're Just My Type materialize?
After I returned home, I was left with this burning to desire to continue to make a difference in this world with my photography, but I had no idea where to start. I moved back to my hometown of Redondo Beach, California, and got way too comfortable falling back into my old routine and so easily forgetting all that I had just witnessed.
In 2015, I ended up meeting a mother of a newly diagnosed type 1 son. He was the same age that I was when I was diagnosed. She shared that he felt scared and alone and it was the first time it was really brought to my attention how isolated one could feel when hearing the news of this diagnosis. I was so fortunate that I was immediately surrounded by others dealing with the same thing -- so this issue was new for me. We talked about how showing a child statistics on a computer of how many others are going through the same thing just doesn’t cut it. And that’s when it hit me. I could start using my photography to take pictures of other type 1s to put a face to this invisible disease and create a resource of endless examples for the newly diagnosed (and not so newly) to able to browse through.
By 2016, I had set out to photograph as many type 1 diabetics as I could, and 6 months later I officially incorporated as a nonprofit with hopes to create a book, host meetups, and create support groups for people all over the world.
How do you find T1D people?
How it work is if somebody is interested in being featured on the page, I send them a questionnaire with a few challenging questions to answer. The whole point of this project is that I want it to be raw and honest. Once I get that back, we set up a time to meet so I can get to know them and take their picture!
People now have the option of sending me 2-3 personal photos with captions from other aspects of their life. That way their feature lasts a whole week on my page, rather than a day. I wanted the community to be able to see more glimpses of them than just one.
If the person who reaches out doesn’t live in driving distance, I add them to a list of others in their city and I start planning more future meet ups so I can eventually get to everyone.
Where have you traveled and snapped photos, in context of diabetes community? How do you pay for that?
After photographing hundreds of type 1’s in Southern California, I was lucky enough to get to travel to Slovenia with my dad. Before heading there, I got some contacts of fellow type 1’s living in Ljubljana (Slovenia’s capitol), and was able to have my first real meet-up there. It was fascinating to see how people from the other side of the world deal with the same disease. We compared meters and health care systems and these people realized they all lived within blocks from each other and would have never known about each other! I slowly felt my vision for You’re Just My Type becoming a reality.
All of the international photos were taken while I was attending the photojournalism program in Germany. They were all "outreach" trips while in this program that was based on injustice and poverty.
Currently, I’m lucky enough to have an incredible partnership with KNOW Foods, which funds my meet-ups in different cities. We had an amazing first KNOW Your Type meetup here in LA then one up in San Francisco. We have many more in the works, hoping to hit a new city every couple months. The donations are where all the other expenses come in.
I’m so excited to announce that the first edition of the You’re Just My Type book is finishing up it’s design process and hopefully will be published in 2018.
What's your favorite diabetes photo taken?
Everyone I meet has a unique story in their life with diabetes and meeting them and hearing about their experiences changes me. No stories have ever been the same. When I look back at the photos I’ve taken, I can’t only see that image—I see their life and the time we spent together and how I grew from knowing them. I can’t pick a favorite photo because all of these memories are a part of me now.
Why do you think DOCer's have become so active on Instagram, and what does it offer that other platforms do not?
T1D is an invisible disease and Instagram gives us a platform to show, through pictures and video, what that disease looks like. Whether it’s a Dexcom chart, a shot in public, or a picture of what we’re about to eat, it gives a way to show everyone what the world looks like to us. Instagram also lets you find and follow people all over the globe, so you’re not limited to just your friends, and it gives you enough text to rant when you really need to.
What other diabetes advocacy efforts have you been involved in?
This year I was on the social media panel at JDRF Dallas’ Type One Nation (alongside you!) and I plan to be at the same event in a few more cities coming up.
One of the fun experiences was hanging out with street artist Appleton, playing around in his gallery of artwork. It was heaven. And by that, I mean we surrounded ourselves with unlimited vials of insulin-and if that doesn't sound like a diabetic's heaven, I don't know what does.
I’ve been honored to guest on the Diabetics Doing Things podcast, as well as The Bravest Life. I have also had the chance to speak at support groups for Miller Children’s Hospital as well as Children’s Hospital LA and been in a video titled “FDA-Patient Dialogue on Unmet Needs in Diabetes," presented to the FDA on the threats of hypoglycemia done by another diabetes friend, Craig Stubing.
Oh, and congrats on your recent engagement! Can you share more about your love story?
We met at a bar four years ago. Knowing me, I probably told him I was diabetic that night. I've never been one to make spilling the news some pivotal moment. What was pivotal in my life though, is that he has been nothing but supportive ever since. Garrett learned early on the seriousness of this disease when within the first couple months, he woke up to me having a seizure. He handled it amazingly, just like he handles everything else in life.
As much as I wish that that didn't happen, I think it's been advantageous in his understanding of type 1 diabetes. He realizes that me saying I'm too tired to do something because I'm high, or I'm too weak to get up to get juice when I'm low means I'm ACTUALLY too tired... and I'm ACTUALLY too weak.
Garrett tests my blood sugar for me in the middle of the night if he feels like something might be wrong. He makes sure to leave fruit strips and a glass of water on my nightstand, every... single... night, in preparation of the inevitable happening.
This man has been there for me since the beginning. This man has rushed to the store in the middle of the night to buy me juice and glucose tablets. He has let me try out new lancing devices on him when I’ve been too scared. He has woken up next to me while I was having a seizure and brought me out of it.
Garrett has notes posted up around our apartment with reminders of my correction, insulin-to-carb ratio, and even how long to hold my pen in me after injecting it, so it doesn't leak.
It is so easy to be strong all the time on the internet, and present yourself in a certain way. But this man gets the behind-the-scenes tears and frustrations. He reminded me when I wanted to give up that if it were easy to start a nonprofit, everybody would be doing it. He has pushed me to be the best I could be and I can only hope that I have done the same for him. I, in a very literal sense, owe him my life, and I am very lucky and very grateful. This man is everything.
And this past September... that man proposed!
I'm still elated, and I'll always be elated.
How wonderful! What else would you like to say to the DOC?
I just feel so lucky to have this type 1 community as my family and am grateful everyday for constant love and support I’ve been shown throughout this journey.
Thanks for sharing, Laura. We're fans now too, and look forward to seeing more of your work on Instagram and around the DOC!