For individuals with chronic conditions, being the best version of yourself means not hiding your diagnosis as part of your identity. At the same time, these individuals don’t want their diagnosis to become their entire identity. It becomes a tightrope of acknowledging your medical needs while balancing those needs with the goals and expectations you have set for yourself.
Our most recent winner of the Elizabeth Auger Annual Scholarship for Students with Type 1 or Type 2 Diabetes, Abreanna Shea, is a master of balance. She was able to find her community early in her childhood by attending a summer camp made especially for children with type one diabetes. At the same time, she has managed her own care alongside the support of her doctors and the local community in order to let nothing hold her back from her goals.
Currently, Shea is pursuing a nursing degree with a focus on pediatric care. Her hope is to experience a well-rounded career in medicine that allows her to provide care for not just young patients but also adults and the elderly. Through her work, her intention is to help children, as well as adults, learn how to manage their own care so that nothing can stand in the way of their dreams.
Many individuals who experience challenges related to healthcare highlight individuals in their life who helped them feel seen — and empowered. While Shea certainly acknowledges the hard work and sacrifices of her mother, who raised five kids largely on her own, Shea’s most important inspiration is not a person, but rather a place.
Her summers spent at a camp for children with type 1 diabetes became a formative experience that has shaped her outlook and her energy.
“I started to go to one when I was 12 years old and I have found lifelong friends from that. Once we became too old to be campers we became counselors,” Shea told us. “Honestly, once I am too old to be a counselor I want to make a comeback as a nurse!”
After fun experiences spent alongside people who understood her in a way different from other peers, Shea was hooked. She attended the same camp every summer, building friendships that she carried with her for decades.
To other children facing challenges related to their type 1 or type 2 diabetes, she recommends: “Don’t hide your diabetes! It’s a big part of your life no matter how you feel about it. Let everyone know it too! There’s truly no reason to hide it, and educating those around you only creates a safer environment for you.”
Also, of course, she advocates finding a diabetes camp in their area.
“Seriously though, this camp is something that completely changed my life. I became so much more comfortable with my diabetes, I improved my care at home, I became motivated to get more involved in the diabetes community, and I made amazing friends.”
One trait that stands out about Shea is that she presents herself as the primary person responsible for her own care. Whether in class or at home, it’s all about monitoring and managing blood glucose and other key vital signs.
When attending school remotely over the past year, she indicated the biggest difference was that she no longer had to explain to professors why she needed certain minor accommodations.
“Pros were that I could sleep a little more and wear pajamas to class,” recounted Shea in an experience many of us no doubt shared, “but relating to my diabetes care it allowed me to keep supplies on hand at all times. I didn’t have to worry so much about going out of my way to talk to professors and explain why I need to keep certain supplies out.”
Also, like many of us over the past year, being home most of the time and experiencing boredom lent itself to more snacking. As a result, Shea tasked herself with monitoring her glucose more carefully and calibrating insulin dosing to keep everything on track.
While she seems to have self-care down to a science, Shea acknowledges the importance of getting the support of health care professionals and others in your community. Communication and understanding are critical, she emphasizes so that a lack of education on the part of others doesn’t become a barrier to the care you need.
For other students with diabetes, she suggests “first getting registered or enrolled in your school’s disability services. There’s a lot they can do to help you out such as provide secluded testing environments to be able to use supplies as needed, extended test times to fix your blood sugar, make sure your medical tardies and absences are excused, and ensure your professors allow you to use supplies when needed.”
She also recommends staying in regular contact with your endocrinologist or primary care physician. School has a way of presenting new situations, which can have a habit of making other life challenges become healthcare challenges if left unchecked. She provides the example of how her own stress levels during the first days of school caused her blood glucose to increase unexpectedly, but coordinating care with her endocrinologist helped her keep everything manageable.
When asked about any struggles she experienced as a young child with diabetes, Shea told us: “Having type one diabetes has definitely challenged me in many ways, but never in a way that has stopped me from achieving anything.”
Her biggest barriers, it seems, came from the teachers, coaches, and others who didn’t provide her the space and support she needed to manage her condition properly. In worst-case scenarios, though, she just spent more time on the bench cheering on her teammates.
All of these experiences seem to reflect the philosophy Shea presented to us in her submitted essay’s opening line: “Being type one diabetic has been one of the biggest parts of my life. In a way, it has shaped who I am and who I want to become, but it certainly has not defined me. However, it has influenced me and my career goals.”
Those career goals include obtaining her registered nurse certification and serving in pediatrics before potentially moving on to adult and geriatric care. Shea is also considering becoming a travel nurse, which would no doubt open her up to even more experiences than before. One thing she wants to change about the healthcare industry, she says, is that she wants providers to have more empathy, awareness, and understanding. What you learn in a textbook is different from what people need to improve their lives and achieve positive outcomes.
Throughout her pursuits, Shea remembers to keep a healthy focus on herself and those she cares about most. Because while the support that tends to feel the most valuable often comes from others, it’s the support we provide for ourselves that truly gives us the strength to accomplish great things.