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April Blackwell Takes Flight with Type 1 Diabetes

How a job with NASA and T1 has played a part in her story

Laura Kolodjeski of Sanofi US DiabetesLaura Kolodjeski

I’ve recently noticed several friends and family members posting old photos for Throwback Thursday (a.k.a. #ThrowbackThursday or #TBT), a popular practice in social media wherein people share memories from days gone by. We thought we could participate, with our own spin, by following up with people we have previously featured on Discuss Diabetes and sharing an update on where they are in life today. When I heard that April Blackwell, whose space-themed wedding we featured, recently landed an exciting job, I knew an update to her story would be a great place to start.

Since their wedding in June 2012, April and her husband Chris have been busy! With both of them working while enrolled in Master’s degree programs, plus April’s significant travel for work, they frequently didn’t see each other. In January 2013, April began looking for a new job that would allow her to spend more time with her husband. As luck would have it, there was an opening that fit April’s needs – and dreams – quite nicely: Mission Controller at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Johnson Space Center in Houston, working with the International Space Station.

April Blackwell in Mission Control Center at Johnson Space Center
April Blackwell in Mission Control Center at Johnson Space Center

The hiring process included a phone interview, a day-long in-person interview, a tour of the center and a 15-minute presentation. “During the day-long interview, I was very upfront with everyone about my diabetes,” April said. “I didn’t want being in an interview to hinder me taking care of myself. Since I was in a new place where I didn’t know anyone, it was important to me to make sure that other people knew that I have diabetes. If I needed to check my blood sugar or a take a couple of glucose tablets, I felt open enough to do that during the interview. I haven’t really had a problem talking about diabetes at work. Fortunately, it wasn’t an issue here either.”

The interview went well, and April got the job. The next step: a move to Houston. After April completed her Master’s degree in May 2013, she moved to Houston over the summer. She lived there alone for a few months while Chris wrapped things up at their home in Huntsville, Ala. “Living alone again reminded me of all the reasons why I really don’t like living alone, especially because of my diabetes. I felt a lot more on edge. My husband is a really large part of my personal support group. I’m really lucky because on the days when I don’t want to deal with diabetes, it seems like he’s even more worried about it. It’s a really good safety net for me to have.”

One of April’s first challenges in Houston was finding a new endocrinologist. After starting her search close to her new home, April added to her list of candidates based on online reviews. She has seen two different endocrinologists, but hasn’t felt comfortable with either one. “It’s still a work in progress,” she said. “Long term, Chris and I are thinking about a family. So I’m interested in finding an endocrinologist that I can really talk and relate to, who I feel is concerned about my welfare. I’m also having a hard time finding a place with diabetes resources and knowledge of diabetes technology available for me to try.”

April’s new job is a different challenge altogether. As an Attitude Determination and Control Officer in training, she has embarked upon an 18-month instruction program. “I’ve been explaining it to people that I’m basically training to become certified as sort of the pilot for the International Space Station,” she said. “It’s fairly intense.”

The NASA training is a lot like college. “About every two weeks we take a class on a different system, from two to four hours, followed by more in-depth information in a workbook. Then we have a workshop where we look at actual data and the instructor shows us how we would be able to tell if there was a problem on our displays in Mission Control.”

The final step for each class is called a check-out, which is a one-on-one oral examination on a specific system. “The most exciting, and terrifying, part about NASA training is the check-outs,” she said. “They vary in length; so far, the shortest one was about 15 minutes and the longest one lasted about five hours. You basically have to teach the teacher and explain everything pretty in-depth. They like to try to imitate someone who doesn’t know the information. So even though they know the information, they stare back at you with an absolutely straight face and it just makes me so nervous.”

Through all this, April keeps tabs on her blood sugar level. “My number one tool has been my continuous glucose monitor (CGM). It’s completely awesome,” she said. “Because it can take a little while for the CGM to calibrate, I try to plan site changes so they won’t land on a day when I have something important. Also, on days when I know it may be hard to check my blood sugar or I may be stressed out, I try to stick to the same eating schedule and keep to the foods for which I feel like I know the carb count. That way, if my blood sugar shows a deviation from what I expect, I may be able to work it out a little better than if it was a food that I maybe don’t eat that often. Those are the key things I try to stick to.”

Diabetes and stress can go hand-in-hand. “It’s been very interesting. A lot of the symptoms I have for low blood sugar seem to mimic similar symptoms someone else might have if they’re just getting nervous,” she observed. “I get shaky and sweaty, my voice starts cracking and I have a hard time concentrating. That’s where my CGM has been helpful, in making sure I don’t actually have low blood sugar. Luckily, it hasn’t come close during the check-outs but I really like having that security blanket there with me.”

April has noticed similarities between her work and her diabetes management. “There are a lot of parallels,” she said. “For work, I have to be able to look at data and make decisions in real time for the International Space Station. I basically do the same thing for diabetes, where I’m constantly working with data from my body and making decisions based on that. It’s a constant battle of making the right decisions. Sometimes you don’t make the right decisions, but you roll with the punches and figure out the best way to recover from the situation.”

Even at the beginning of this new adventure, April is looking ahead. “I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut,” she said. “I don’t want to give up working on that dream, though I realize it may be a very long shot just because of how selective it is, even if I didn’t have diabetes. Other than that, I love working at NASA so far. It would be great to continue doing that and to be a leader both to peers at work and maybe new people coming in. I also want to encourage young diabetics, or just anyone with some sort of problem that they feel is a hindrance. I want to inspire them to push their boundaries. You only have one life. You may be the only one who can change that outcome or try to catch your dreams.”

April already has plans for mentoring children. “My younger sister is a fifth grade teacher in inner city Phoenix,” she said. “Chris and I are going to talk to her class. Many of the kids’ lives are very hard. I think it’s important that they’re not discouraged at this point. I’m hoping that showing them how I have overcome obstacles with diabetes will help inspire them. I didn’t want it to hold me back or determine my future. Even though you may come across road blocks, just try to work around them. A lot of people are willing to help you if you’re willing to show that you can go the extra mile. Maybe the kids will be able to apply that to their situations.”

A job interview, a move and an intense orientation period – April has certainly gotten some practice managing diabetes and stress in the past year! What a whirlwind! It seems like her determination and positive attitude will serve her well in whatever adventure may come next. My thanks to April for giving us an update to her inspiring story.

All the best,

Laura K.

Disclosure: April Blackwell received no compensation for this post. All opinions contained in this post reflect those of the interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies or affiliates.

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