Today we’re excited to share a glimpse into the life of a couple who met and bonded over their shared experiences with type 1 diabetes: Nan and Rex Vint in Indianapolis, who’ve been married for 15 years now.
She also happens to work in the field, as a diabetes education specialist at Eli Lilly. That’s a lot of diabetes in their lives!
Nan was diagnosed as a child, and Rex was diagnosed at age 29. He’s a former sheriff’s deputy now working on the legal side in a public defender’s office.
We met Nan in our recent travels to Eli Lilly’s Indy headquarters and the Lilly Innovation Center in Cambridge, MA, where she took part in a discussion panel about severe hypoglycemia. There she first shared some of the couple’s unique experiences both living with T1D.
Boy, do they have some diabetes stories to tell!
The advantage of having a partner who shares this exasperating disease is that “you know they ‘get it’ like no one else can,” Nan says. “It almost helps you relax a bit, (because) it’s a judgement-free zone without a need to explain what’s going on. It’s an understanding you share, and that becomes part of the person that you love.”
Diagnosis, meeting and marrying
Diagnosed at age 11, Nan’s story is a familiar start with T1D: symptoms came on quickly including weight loss, extreme thirst and bathroom visits --- and it didn’t help that her drink of choice at the time was regular Coke in the classic glass bottle.
Attending a Catholic grade school, she said the nuns were angry because she kept needing to leave class for the drinking fountain and bathroom. When her mom took her to the pediatrician, her glucose level clocked in at a dangerously high 795 mg/dL.
Of course, young Nan and her family had no diabetes know-how, so that number didn’t translate into anything meaningful for them. What Nan recalls most is that she was in a hospital bed, when a large nurse came into the room in full white outfit and boots, and clipboard in hand. “Well, yep, she’s got ‘diabeetis’, but don’t worry it’ll be OK, I’ve got diabeetis too,” she said. Without any frame of reference, Nan remembers thinking her life was over and she’d never be able to eat again.
Years later, it would be that initial nurse experience that helped push Nan toward a diabetes education career herself. And with that, she found herself at a healthcare event where she ended up meeting the man she would marry.
Rex was recently diagnosed then, and Nan says they met and hit off immediately.
“Sure, we kinda met and bonded over type 1, but he’s kind of handsome… so there’s that,” Nan says with a laugh. “I had gone through a divorce and had sworn off men… and then we just struck up this friendship and one thing led to another.”
Diabetes lingo and technology mix-ups
Nan and Rex say they have their own fun “alternative lingo universe” when it comes to life with diabetes. They find themselves kidding each other and laughing at diabetes quite often. It also became even more comical when Rex got hooked up to diabetes technology, and she saw that from his POV compared to her long-time tech use since childhood.
Nan recalls she was in junior high home glucose monitoring was first introduced, and as we know human insulin and eventually analogue brands would follow -- along with insulin pumps, continuous glucose monitors (CGM), and all the mobile health tools we have today. She went on an insulin pump (the Minimed 507) right after her first marriage began and was on that device when she got pregnant. Working as a nurse and certified diabetes educator (CDE), Nan says she’s used almost every device out there and has “pushed the boundaries” as much as she could to understand the medication and tech use.
It added a new layer to their relationship when Rex started on a pump and CGM.
“I’d always been in the habit of just tossing the pump into the bed with me, and it would follow me like a dog on a leash,” Nan says. “But when he did the same, and we had the same color and brand of pump, we’d grab each other’s pumps in bed. That’s when we realized we needed at least different color pumps.”
Nan got a pink pump while Rex kept the charcoal gray color, making them easier to tell apart – assuming their eyes were open in a half-asleep state.
Device confusion with CGM and data-sharing kept the fun going in and out of bed, Nan says.
The CGM alerts would sound overnight and wake Rex up, and he’d wake Nan up to tell her to drink juice to offset a Low. She’d reach into her nearby bag and grab a juice to drink, realizing only afterward (once fully awake) that she didn’t feel Low, and a CGM or fingerstick check would confirm that it was actually Rex who was Low!
“Then, I’d have to take insulin for the juice I drank,” she says. “That continues, and an alarm would go off and we don’t know who’s alarm it is. That happens at home and when we’re traveling, too.”
They both share their CGM data with each other, so that can lead to mix-ups on not knowing whose CGM data they might be glancing at if they aren’t cautious. Nan notes that at a recent diabetes conference, she told that story to a device company rep, emphasizing the need to personalize alarms so each PWD (person with diabetes) can recognize their own alarm sound.
“We have little emojis that we use in texting, just an up or down arrow. Sometimes we might have the exact same blood sugars, so we’ll text ‘FREAK’ to the other one. Or when I’m 75 and he’s 220, and I’ll take pictures and note ‘it’s one of those days.’ It’s this whole alternative lingo universe that we live in.”
“There are the frustrations, as anyone with diabetes might know. But overall, it’s good,” she says. “You have to be able to keep a sense of humor and have some fun with it.”
Nan admits, though, it can be tough at times to draw the line between her personal and professional diabetes roles.
They see different endocrinologists, Nan notes, partially due to different proximities to their work locations and also because Nan has a female endo while Rex has a male clinician. While Nan says she does see a CDE whom she knows from her professional work, Rex does not and she laughs that it’s probably since he “feels he lives with one” at home.
“I do try to not be his CDE or healthcare provider, but try to be his wife and friend,” she says. “Sometimes he’ll say to me, ‘You’re really good about being a CDE,” and I know that’s code for ‘back off.’ He probably also knows that if he went to a different CDE and they said something I didn’t agree with, he’d have to go with what I said anyway.”
A diabetes education and pharma career
When talking career, Nan looks back at her initial diagnosis time as a big inspiration. Though she first went into marketing, advertising and business at Indiana University, she later went back to school in the mid-90s for a career switch to healthcare. Images of that first nurse telling her “it’s OK, I have diabeetis too” came flooding back, and factored into her decision-making to pursue nursing and a specialty in diabetes.
“I wanted to be the first person in the room when someone’s diagnosed, to make sure that news is shared in the way it needs to be, to let them know they can do anything they want to do despite diabetes,” Nan says. “You’ve got this and have to take care of it, but it’s not going to hold you back. And then to be on call at any time later on if they need me. I started seeing diabetes as a lemon that I wanted to turn into lemonade and help other people. It was a pivotal moment.”
Her resume speaks for itself, with early roles ranging from program development and diabetes management consultation in hospitals, to being an insulin pump trainer in southern and central Indiana, to independent contract work in diabetes education, and eventually turning her educator skills toward the pharmaceutical industry. She took a role with Eli Lilly in Indianapolis, where she’s been since 2013 as a research scientist and the Type 1 Diabetes Medical Lead for the pharma giant.
You name it, Nan has a hand in it. That includes being a part of the business unit brand teams for strategic planning on launch and commercialization activities -- all with her personal T1D voice and perspective as a D-spouse weaved in.
“I saw there was an opportunity in my career where industry could play a role in educating patients, and changing conversations and how they’ve worked,” she says.
“It’s been a really good fit because whenever I come into a room and see who all is at the table, the first thing I do is consider what perspective I can bring that no one else has. Most often, it’s that patient voice and the user interface POV – from access and affordability, to health education materials, and developing new drugs and tech, and working with Marketing and Government and Corporate Affairs.”
Dangerous hypo while driving
Rex isn’t in healthcare, but his diabetes has also come into play on the professional side – in an unfortunate way. Nan shares that story, with her husband’s permission; Rex has told her that more people need to know about what happened in order to raise awareness.
With military experience as a sharp-shooter, Rex had reached sergeant at an Indiana sheriff’s department where he’d been for 20 years. Part of his job involved instructing cadets at police academies, tapping into his experience in sharp-shooting, motorcycles, and emergency vehicle operations (EVOs). He’d also been part of the SWAT team. Nan describes his career as requiring one to “function at a very high, intense level much of the time” – dating back to before his T1D diagnosis.
Unfortunately, at one point not long after starting on a new exercise program, Rex experienced a severe hypo while behind the wheel of his sheriff’s patrol car. He had been called out on a complicated dispatch call without being able to take his full lunch break, and as a result his blood sugars plummeted. Even with glucose tabs and gel in the car, Rex wasn’t able to sufficiently manage.
“In his mind, he was thinking that he had to get home to me – even though I was at work and wasn’t there,” she says. “He’s in this souped-up police vehicle and ends up crashing on the way home. No one was hurt, but the car was totaled and other officers were called out.”
He was put on administrative desk duty, which was especially tough for her husband given his background. That led to him taking a court bailiff position, and eventually it resulted in Rex taking a medical retirement from the sheriff’s department.
Rex landed in the public defender’s office on the legal end, versus the police side.
“There are times we’re out, and a car drives by or we see something, and you can just see it in his eyes that he misses it and wishes he was still involved,” Nan says.
While they had some initial interactions with the American Diabetes Association (ADA) about legal issues connected to that sheriff’s department situation, Nan says they opted to not fight because of where their life was at the time.
For both Nan and Rex, the connection they have and those within the Diabetes Community has impacted how they look at even these unfortunate, serious aspects of life with type 1. In particular, the popular Friends For Life conference hosted each summer by non-profit Children With Diabetes is one of the places they find comfort beyond the walls of their own home and relationship. They attended the 2019 FFL event in Orlando, and Rex – being a motorcycle guy – rode his motorcycle all the way down to Florida from central Indiana. They’re also planning to attend a smaller, local FFL event in Indy planned for March 2020.
Nan says, “Everyone has their own story… and an event that’s happened where they got a raw deal, made fun of, or something. Sometimes, it’s related to their diabetes experience. But when you get understanding from those around you, and can see in their eyes that they understand, that makes it OK. It’s a little easier to live with.”