Travel, Research, and Diabetes

Elizabeth Greer

As I watch the sun set behind mountain islands, I look down at my freshly sun-kissed arms. For months they had been hidden in the library and formaldehyde scented halls of medical school. Now, the spot - where my IV was harbored for days in the PICU - is highlighted against my tanned skin.

This white dot hovering over my vein says hello as the sun says goodbye to our white and aqua Filipino bamboo pontoon boat. It is a reminder of the 13 years that may not have been. Just this morning I wondered what accolades I could have accomplished had it not been for Type 1 Diabetes. I thought, without highs and lows, I could have done better in school, received even more prestigious training, and saved more lives as a physician. But the scar reminds me that everything I am and have accomplished in my life, I owe to that Tuesday morning in March when I asked myself, “Is this what dying feels like?”

Because of my diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes, I am a supporter and advocate for those living with chronic disease, attributes that will continue through my career as a physician. While medical school was possibly the most stressful experience I have encountered, this summer is arguably the best of my life. I went on a medical mission trip with four classmates to some of the most rural and underserved areas of the Philippines. To say I was nervous, is an understatement. I had an ebbing feeling that Diabetes would limit my ability to help others, would slow the group down, and maybe even put me at a greater risk with a surprise loss of consciousness hypo or a wickedly inopportune DKA.

None of that happened – in fact, my mission trip made me feel incredibly empowered by my ability to give back to a community, an aspiration that was triggered by my diagnosis. I treated the elderly in Malolos, the indigenous tribe called the Dumagats, and a small farming community where we had to ask for directions from a guy riding bareback on a water buffalo; visited a home that gave food, shelter, and education to over 150 street children; snorkeled in island lakes and cut my toe on a giant clam while posing for an underwater photo op; and strengthened my friendships with the group I was with far beyond my wildest imagination.

And when I returned, I started work at the University of Chicago Kovler Diabetes Center as a research assistant in clinical trials, specifically working on TrialNet. I am able to give relatives of T1Ds a power in knowledge of their own personal autoantibody status, in addition to offer clinical trials that may prevent or delay onset of T1D if the participant tests positive. Ninety-five percent of participants have negative auto-antibodies meaning they are extremely unlikely to develop T1D. How awesome is that?!

In short, life is wickedly crazy with turns unexpected. Diabetes has brought me so many places. Some infiltrated with less than desirable situations, but most experiences are unexpectedly incredible.

As much as I dislike having Type 1 Diabetes, I can’t believe I am saying this. If these amazing experiences keep coming my way because of it, bring it on.