You can never fully appreciate the magic of a Friends For Life diabetes conference until you have the opportunity to attend one yourself. For me, that chance came most recently with a short journey to Niagara Falls, Ontario. Just picture a beautiful rainbow shining in the misty sunlight over the great natural wonder of the falls, and that’s pretty much how I felt being surrounded by “my diabetes tribe” in Canada, those who “get it” when it comes to living with diabetes.
I’ve been lucky enough to attend a few different FFL events over the years, from the big summer conference that brings thousands to Orlando, FL, each July to other smaller events sprinkled around the country. This #FFLCanada18 gathering in early November (just as Diabetes Awareness Month kicked off) was my first one outside the U.S. and certainly made an impact. Like all the wonderful FFL events, it featured a variety of talks on all manner of diabetes topics — from managing exercise to food issues to dealing with social situations — along with a lot of content around new diabetes technology.
Of course, one of the best aspects involves seeing all the green and yellow bracelets — green for those living with diabetes, yellow for parents, spouses, grandparents, and others without diabetes — that are on everyone’s wrists. I lose count of all the times I heard “See, he has a green bracelet just like you!” from a D-parent telling that to their child, when spotting my green wristband.
Two non-profits — Children With Diabetes based in Ohio and Connected In Motion in Canada — joined together to host this event, the first time CWD had worked with another non-profit group to hold its signature FFL conference. This was the fourth time in Canada, but the first time to return to that country since 2015.
For starters, 450+ people came together from our D-Community — and it was fascinating to hear the demand for this Canada-based event, as it sold out in just about three hours! The official numbers are as follows: 170 youth, 55 adults with type 1, 200 parents, 30 staff and 20 speakers. Not to mention many new submissions for the Quilt for Life project that goes on display each summer in Orlando, which is now up to 759 squares!
The organizers — CWD founders Jeff Hitchcock in Ohio and Laura Billetdeaux in Michigan, and CIM’s type 1 leader Jen Hanson in Canada — already have their sights set on a repeat event in Fall 2019, returning to Niagara Falls in a nearby location that’s twice as big and can accommodate many more D-Community friends to experience FFL there!
As it’s only about four hours to Niagara Falls from where I live in Metro Detroit, it was an easy drive and an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up (especially as I was bummed to not make the annual FFL in Orlando this past summer).
Notably, with this event being so close to home, it was the first time my parents were able to attend any FFL conference. This was HUGE for us, given that my mom Judi has been living with type 1 since age 5. As it turns out, she was the longest-term T1D in attendance and one of the small number there actually “Looping” with a do-it-yourself closed loop system! It was great to see #WeAreNotWaiting tech get several mentions at the conference, and she even got a cool Loop shirt there.
Of course, one of the best aspects of these FFL events — or any D-event, really — is meeting up with people in the community. Just talking. Sharing stories, hearing beeps around the event venue, and seeing all the smiles of the kids, teens and adults able to meet with other D-peeps, sometimes for the very first time. That always brings a grin to my face and warms my heart.
I certainly experienced that, while also keeping my ears open for interesting nuances that may exist between diabetes care and options in the USA compared to those in parts of Canada.
Part of what was so fascinating to me about this particular FFL event was that it took place in another country. Sure, these days we’re all very connected online with people who live in different places across the globe. But it’s one thing to swap messages online, versus actually traveling to a different country and meeting these folks face to face. You get a chance to experience their POV more directly, in the trenches, so to speak.
Notably, just a week before this Canada event, CWD held its UK-version of FFL in Scotland, bringing hundreds together for a weekend there. Michigan D-Mom Laura Billetdeaux, co-founder of CWD, posted a note online that perfectly sums up my own feelings about attending the Canadian event:
“There’s an FFL family here. They’re loving it. Aside from being in a gorgeous venue with wonderful new friends, there’s the entire experience of hearing about life with type 1 in a different healthcare culture. Ed Damiano (of Beta Bionics) spoke on Friday, and it was the first many had heard of the bionic pancreas. The look on many of their faces was, I’m sure, the same as mine when I first heard him speak.”
How awesome to give international PWDs the opportunity to hear from these amazing diabetes innovators in person!
Overall, I saw a lot of excitement about how the Tandem x2 with Dexcom G5 that will soon be available in that country after its most recent approval; as well as about the Abbott FreeStyle LibreLink app, which received regulatory OK earlier in October, and over the fact that the Medtronic 670G hybrid closed loop system is about to hit the market there, too. For some of us in the States who’ve had the ability to see this tech up close and use it already, it’s great to see more choice coming to people in Canada.
I learned that access and affordability of diabetes medications and supplies is an issue in any country. While we in the U.S. are grappling with insulin pricing and insurance access more often than anything else, it’s interesting to see that in Canada they’re fighting for CGM coverage and broad D-tech access woes quite a bit too. I found it intriguing to ponder the news from last year about Canada’s disability tax credit being changed, and how that has made it more difficult for many people in that country to afford what they need for diabetes.
The whole experience was at once eye-opening, heartwarming, and educational. Like I said early on, it’s like a rainbow over a waterfall kinda feeling.
I, for one, would recommend to anyone attending an FFL event if you haven’t yet — no matter the location or size, it’s a one-of-a-kind experience.
Thank you, CWD and CIM, for making this event possible for so many who normally don’t have the chance to experience it.