Storm chaser with type 1 diabetes photographs a tornado in Kansas.Share on Pinterest
Jen Walton, photographed by Parker Koppes

Female storm chasers are a rare but growing breed. Combine that with running after tornadoes while juggling the pressures of living with type 1 diabetes (T1D), and you’ve got something truly unique.

DiabetesMine was delighted to speak recently with Jennifer Walton, Colorado-based storm chaser and curator of the @girlswhochase community, who’s also a self-described “sugar-free mixologist” and person living with T1D. You might not think those things could be interrelated, but you’d be surprised.

We started the conversation by asking about her diabetes diagnosis story.

Tell us about your diagnosis experience. Did you get good information and care from the start?

Storm chaser Jen Walton lives with type 1 diabetes.
Jen Walton

Not exactly. I came out of an illness having lost some weight and continued to lose weight a little bit at a time… I was pretty thrilled that suddenly my metabolism had kicked in the way I’d always wanted, but there was always part of me that kind of knew something wasn’t right. About 2 months after, the raging thirst started and I was having all of these random miscellaneous [issues] that weren’t very big in and of themselves, but they also weren’t stopping. I would solve one thing, and then something else would happen. And of course, looking back, it was high blood sugar.

I Googled the symptoms and was a bit dismayed when the first thing that popped up was type 1 diabetes. Type 2 had run in my dad’s family, and I’d always been told to watch my health as a result. And felt like I had always done that. Not ever having really heard of type 1, I was appalled because I had tried really hard [to protect my health] and it felt like it was kind of all for naught. And of course, you learn later there’s really no connection.

So, I decided I needed a diagnosis. I was pretty sure that’s what was going on. I went to see a doctor who kind of patronized me and said that she would get me a blood test, but that there would be a multi-week delay to do that.

Luckily, I kept pushing. I had a very hard time finding another doctor who could see me immediately. So, I ended up having a friend call in a favor with a physician assistant (PA) who took my A1C and blood sugar. My fasting glucose level was 407 mg/dL and my A1C was 12.7!

The doctor diagnosed me in a hallway and sent me to an endocrinologist down the hall, who had no time to see me. That endocrinologist kind of threw Lantus [long-acting insulin] and a glucose meter at me and told me to come back in 5 days.

The quote that I will never forget, was, ‘Yup, you got diabetes, but at least it’s not cancer.’ And that was my diabetes diagnosis experience.

Yikes! What did you do then?

I went to see a nutritionist who said, ‘Are you aware that the Barbara Davis Center is in Denver?’ I live in Colorado. And I was not. So, in that month before I made it to the Barbara Davis Center, I taught myself online how to check my blood sugar and how to inject insulin. When I did go to the Barbara Davis Center, they did a 6-hour ‘How to Be a Diabetic 101’ intro and set some goals, and spent a lot of time with charts helping me understand what it meant to keep blood sugar in range.

It was overwhelming because one minute you’re like a normal human, and the next you have this organ that’s no longer functioning, and your whole life is different. I spent a lot of that 6 hours crying and just kind of processing what all of this actually meant.

One thing I got from them [at the Barbara Davis Center] was they said, ‘Yes, this is a chronic lifelong disease and your life is not going to be the same. It’s high maintenance and expensive, but it doesn’t mean you can’t live a full and complete life. In a lot of ways, you don’t have to compromise, you just have to figure it out.’

That approach is really what served as the foundation for a lot of what I do now.

Were you chasing storms before your diagnosis, or is that something you’ve started since?

I started [being adventurous] after diagnosis.

Upon diagnosis, I was in the process of leaving a job, going through some relationship changes, and I moved a couple of times. I started asking myself, am I doing what brings me joy? What is it about my life that I want to remember when I’m 80? So, I dove into some personal growth work.

Despite being told it’s entirely possible to have a whole and complete life with diabetes, I thought, ‘Who knows if it is going to ultimately shorten my years?’ So, it heightened my urgency around making the most of what I had.

After that, I was having drinks with a type 1 friend who had been recently divorced, and she announced that she was going to make 2018 her year of fun. I loved that idea because I had been reading in all kinds of personal growth literature that basically suggested: Our job here on Earth is to find what we love, find what brings us happiness, do that, and the rest is details. Not everyone has the luxury of making those changes. But that was something I had already been working toward and I decided, yes, I’m going to do this.

OK, but why storm chasing? How did you get started?

Weather has always been part of my life. When I was young, I would watch The Weather Channel all the time. “Twister” was one of my favorite movies. And then there’s a Discovery Channel show called “Storm Chasers.” I took all of those in.

I became obsessed. I dreamt about tornadoes. I would go outside and watch storms. But there was always something that kept me from actually pursuing chasing. And I think it was some combination of I’m not an expert in this area, it’s dangerous, I need to go have a real job and like, be a real human.

I spent my first career in science and environmental communication. So, I was already in the science community and one degree removed from the people who were doing severe weather research. I kept trying to find people who would take me storm chasing with them because I thought, well, if I go with an expert, I’ll be safe and I’ll be doing it the right way.

Also, frankly, I hadn’t seen a lot of people who looked like me chasing storms. If you think about some of the reality shows, it’s pretty much all guys. And not only that, but they’re like adrenaline junkies who are driving head-on into tornadoes, and that wasn’t something I was necessarily going to be doing.

But you worked up the courage?

Yes. Because of my interest in weather, I followed various storm chasers on social media. I was on Facebook in the spring of 2018 and saw a chase tour company post a huge discount for a tour. I actually caught myself thinking, I can’t do that.

Then I thought, wait, why can’t I? If this is going to be my year of fun and I’ve set my goal around pursuing the things that bring me joy, then this is where it starts. So, I signed up for the tour.

There must have been a lot to learn…?

A female storm chaser who lives with type 1 diabetes.

Twenty-eighteen was a pretty quiet weather year, so we didn’t see a lot [of storms] for the week I was out with them, but it gave me a taste of what chasing was like.

It also gave me an opportunity to do it safely versus just driving myself to a storm somehow without a clue. I asked questions for a solid week. How did you know that was going to happen? How do you get this information? What’s the process for decision-making? I mean, it just didn’t stop. I brought my little notebook and was taking notes.

It seemed that everyone else on the tour was just there for the adrenaline. The tour guides were thrilled because I was interested in the science and forecasting.

So, I got back from that tour and I thought, OK, I know enough now to be dangerous and I’m going to give this a try. I did a couple of chases where I followed someone and those were fun. Then, about 2 weeks after I got back from the tour, I happened to be working from home and saw a storm come out of the foothills and knew just enough about storm shape on the radar to know that this was a big one. I decided I was going to chase it.

It turned out, I was completely on the wrong side and got stuck in traffic. I made a lot of rookie mistakes. And when I crested a hill, there was my first tornado. I was in such a rush to leave the house that I still had my pajamas on! I just have this memory of jumping up and down outside of my car, screaming in my pajamas and a monster was born that day.

So this is a hobby, but a serious one?

I was still working full-time [when I started], so I chased when I was able, which wasn’t a lot, and then I spent the following three winters studying forecasting. Last year, I lost my full-time job just before COVID and decided now was the time to make a change career-wise. I started my own communications consulting business so that I have the flexibility to really do this.

I really enjoyed the chasing part, I had one storm last year that I was on by myself and it was at sunset. There was a cloud deck and the sun, and it just was magnificent. I took pictures and kind of did my thing, got back in the car, was deciding if I was done, and just lost it. I’ve never really felt like that before. It was just pure joy.

So for you, it’s about joy, not adrenaline?

Well, part of it is definitely the adrenaline and the challenge. And, you know, doing things that maybe aren’t always the safest or the smartest. To me, that’s really living.

A chunk of it is the accomplishment. We have the opportunity to experience and witness something that is rare. We’re witnessing Mother Nature creating art that most people don’t have the opportunity to witness — with their own eyes, in real-time.

Over the years, as I’ve posted photos, I’ve had people say things like ‘You bring epic to us’ and ‘I come to you to show me what’s possible in the world, to show me Mother Nature’s most epic, beautiful fury.’ Having the opportunity to be a conduit, not just witness it, but share that with other people and maybe even inspire them is part of it now.

Does having diabetes impact your experience or ability to chase storms?

Chasing involves a lot of adrenaline and that can bring, you know, highs and lows. There are some periods that are very intense where you’re hyper-focused on what’s going on so you don’t get overrun or blow your windows out from giant hail or anything.

I would say the majority of chases so far, excepting one or two, I have flatlined — to the point where I’ve documented it a couple of times because it’s so remarkable to me. The only thing I can say about that is when you are in flow and doing exactly what you’re supposed to do, your body is actually at rest. So, instead of those hormones affecting your blood sugar because there’s stress or other factors like cortisol that can raise blood sugar, none of that is actually happening. Sometimes, I actually go kind of close to low, like I’ll be sitting in the 90s and just kind of riding along until I eat something.

I’m not sure if I should say this out loud, but I’ve gotten very good at injecting on the fly. I always keep glucose tabs and all the usual stuff in the car.

Also, having a CGM (continuous glucose monitor) is pretty much the only thing I think that makes storm chasing possible because I’m able to monitor easily and quickly and have it interrupt something that is requiring my full attention. I can just respond as needed. But oftentimes, I have these mental images of sitting in a passenger seat, juggling an iPad with models, a camera, and an insulin pen while I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to inject and not put these things down, while my foot’s halfway out the door. There’s a lot going on. But I just figure it out. I mean, you just make it work.

So, you storm chase while using an insulin pen and a CGM?

Yeah. It’d be a whole other equation if I was trying to figure out [insulin pump] basal rates while chasing. I’d probably have an established setting, but instead, I’m being more responsive.

The other thing is that I use the InPen because I’m so busy that I’ll inject, and then I can go back and check and make sure I injected or see how much insulin it’s estimating I have on board. Between the InPen and the CGM, it allows me the mental freedom to focus on other things. Along with a host of other management techniques.

Tell us about @GirlsWhoChase online campaign you started to promote female storm chasers?

I noticed that there was an imbalance in who was on social media. It was significantly more men than women. I also noticed, for example, if we were on a chase and we were posting videos, the men would get sale requests and I would get nothing, or they would sell photos and I wouldn’t. Some of that can certainly be chalked up to my stuff wasn’t great, especially early on. But over time, as you’re getting better and your skills are improving and you’re literally standing side-by-side in front of the same storm and your footage looks nearly identical, and they’re getting requests from massive outlets and you’re getting nothing. Something is afoot here.

I spoke with some other female chasers who relayed similar experiences. Then, I started to notice, because I’m on Instagram and I’m a photographer, that there were these huge aggregator pages of storm photography and they were posting mostly men. Yet, there’s this diversity of female photographers who are doing amazing things, and none of that is showing up. So, the data just kind of continued to mount over time, and something would happen and I would get upset and somebody would say, do something about it.

It’s not chasers themselves who are doing this. In fact, some of my biggest cheerleaders are are male chasers. It seems to be the media and cultural expectations. You see male chasers on television. They’re the adrenaline junkies. They bring eyeballs and then pop culture begins to expect that that’s who’s doing that. It becomes this vicious cycle.

And you decided to concentrate on Instagram?

It is really the only social media that aggregates. Everything else disappears into a feed on all of the other social media. On Instagram, you can create a gallery. I started it with a few female photographers just posting their stuff and was almost immediately blown away by the engagement. First, it was from the chase community, and then it started to come from other places: Australia, Italy, France, Czech Republic, Brazil, Mexico, Norway, like everywhere. Now we have this literal global gallery of art.

Then, I started to get notes from people who were not chasers, like the sixth grade teacher who said, ‘I’m showing this to my students because I want them to understand that weather is a great way to teach science, but I want them to see that girls can do anything.’

The other piece that I had been kind of mulling was we need to create more media with female chasers. So, I am in the process now of recording audio and podcast interviews with female chasers. And, I’m scheduling a special session with male chasers to talk about what it means to support women in chasing.

I think most folks want to support it, they just don’t know how.

Now let’s talk about SugarFree Mixology. You wanted to help people with diabetes enjoy a cocktail without having their blood glucose go through the roof?

Following the vernacular of my diagnosis where they said, ‘You don’t have to compromise necessarily, you just have to figure it out.’ I know this isn’t the case for everyone, but liquid sugar for me is just a nightmare. It spikes my glucose immediately, and then it takes me 6 hours to get it back under control. Oftentimes, there’s a roller-coaster effect, and it’s just not worth it.

I was a barista in college and familiar with flavors and how you mix flavors together. So, I have always felt comfortable just throwing things together in a cup. I cannot cook to save my life. But when it comes to liquids, apparently that’s my thing.

I just started swapping simple syrup for stevia, and then got in the habit of carrying stevia packets when I would go out with friends so that I could use it in a drink. So, if I asked the bartender to drop a sugary ingredient, I could just replace it with stevia.

I was at a bar one night at a diabetes event and I ordered some fancy drink that had eight ingredients in it, poured my packet of stevia in, minding my own business when somebody said, ‘How did you know to do that?’ Suddenly, I realized that everyone around me was drinking vodka soda waters, like unhappily, because they had to if they wanted to keep their glucose in check. It was either that or no drinking. Or, I’m going to have my beer and suffer the consequences, but I want a damn beer. You know, there was no middle ground. And here I am with my fancy, whatever it was. And there was no sugar in it, so I didn’t have to inject. I didn’t do anything.

That kind of kept happening. Somebody would say, ‘You’ve got to write about this because people don’t realize they can do this.’ So finally, I decided to start a blog. And that was actually how SugarFree Mixology started.

So, helping people see that they have options is the empowering part?

I realized after a while that, for me, the way that empowerment manifests as a diabetic is by being an advocate. We deal with crappy health insurance, things are priced unbelievably high, medical providers can be tough to deal with. And I think a lot of people just take that. They don’t want to upset anyone. They’re afraid to advocate for themselves. Or they think this is just the way it is. I just wasn’t wired that way.

But I don’t have a problem ‘wasting somebody’s time’ for 5 minutes while they help me figure out what I can order from a cocktail menu. And if I get crap about it, I play the D-card.

So again, people would often say, ‘Wow, I had no idea I could even do that, but next time I go to a restaurant, I’m going to do this.’ And so that was my small way of saying, ‘You’re worth it.’ And it doesn’t have to be a cocktail. However, that manifests, it’s OK to say ‘No, this is what I want and deserve.’”

What kind of synergy do you see between storm chasing, crafting cocktails, and life with diabetes?

The common denominator for me, whether it’s with building diabetes community, SugarFree Mixology, or @GirlsWhoChase, is definitely empowering people to do what matters to them. It doesn’t have to be chasing or cocktails specifically. The point is, don’t hold back from doing what you want and what you love.

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With the holiday season upon us, DiabetesMine asked for a sugar-free beverage idea we could enjoy as we’re celebrating. Walton offered up her Choose Your Own Adventure Holiday Hot Chocolate, which can be made with or without alcohol. And for those who’ll be celebrating away from home, she suggested 8 Tips to Stay Sugar-free/Low Sugar While Drinking Out. Cheers everyone!