With the start of the 2014 Sochi games just days away, I’ve been scanning the schedules for events I don’t want to miss. I’m really looking forward to watching the competitions. I’m often struck by the dedication and perseverance required to become an elite competitor. The athletes devote so much of their lives toward their goals, each striving for the recognition represented by a prestigious medal.
Dr. Elliott P. Joslin, founder of the Joslin Diabetes Center, also wanted to honor the efforts of a select few, leading him to create the Joslin Medalist Program. We’ve previously featured the stories of 50-Year Medalists Judi Hoskins and Richard Vaughn. With medals in mind, I turned to Stephanie Hastings, Co-coordinator of the Joslin 50-Year Medalist Study for more information on the program.
Beginning his work in diabetes care in the late 1800s, Dr. Joslin became even more committed to diabetes management when his mother was diagnosed with diabetes in 1900. “He had a personal investment in trying to understand this disease and how to improve people’s lives with it,” Stephanie said. “His interest in diabetes research gave him a practical and unique perspective. The emphasis on translational research is still present today. They take findings from clinical research, explore them in the laboratory, and then apply them in the clinic. It’s a really nice back and forth that can make the research more powerful.”
In 1931, Dr. Joslin created the 10-Year Life Expectancy Medal to recognize the efforts of those who had lived with diabetes for an extended period of time. “He wanted to give patients recognition because he believed that was helpful,” Stephanie said. “Diabetes is something that they may struggle with every day. Others might not necessarily notice that struggle from the outside, so giving them that recognition and something to strive for seemed really beneficial for them psychologically and motivated them.”
Through the years, the Medalist Program has grown and evolved. The 10-Year Medal has been discontinued. A 25-Year Medal was introduced in 1948, and is now offered as a certificate. Medals are currently offered to recognize 50, 75 and 80 years of living with insulin-dependent diabetes. Each medal bears an inspiring image symbolizing the accomplishment of living with diabetes, such as a triumphant marathon runner on the 50-Year Medal and a person overlooking a mountain sunrise on the 80-Year Medal. To date, more than 4,000 50-Year Medals have been awarded, plus 70 75-Year Medals and four 80-Year Medals.
While medals are awarded only to those living with insulin-dependent type 1 diabetes, Joslin also recognizes the efforts of those who live with type 2 diabetes. “We have received a couple of applications from people who have lived 50 or more years with type 2,” Stephanie said. “At this point, we haven’t been able to give them a Joslin Medal, but we have recognized them informally. Awarding them a medal is something we’d like to do at some point.”
In order to be considered for a diabetes medal, those living with diabetes must submit a short application and some documentation of their diabetes duration for 25 or more years. “A lot of people have a problem procuring medical records from so long ago. That’s understandable,” Stephanie said. “As an alternative, we would accept a letter from a doctor who has treated them for type 1, or three letters from close friends or family members who can verify they have a long duration of managing diabetes. If people have problems with documentation, I always encourage them to contact me to provide assistance.”
Response to the Medalist Program has been very positive. “I think people are often surprised by how meaningful it is to actually have something that marks 50 years of difficult work,” Stephanie said. “It also means a lot to their family members, I think, because they can be very integral in helping with their diabetes management. Sometimes Medalists still have parents that are alive. If someone was diagnosed young, their parents may have heard that it wasn’t a great outlook for their child. It means so much for them to be able to see that they’ve made it.”
Some people living with diabetes see the medals as a motivational tool. “Some people say that they have been thinking about the Medal since they were diagnosed; it was something they’ve been striving for,” Stephanie said. “That really means a lot to all of us, to know that they’ve achieved it. Other times, people will tell us that they were having some problems with their management, that they were in a rut. The Medal helped them feel refreshed and like they were part of something bigger. It made them want to try a little harder.”
In 2005, Joslin expanded upon the Medalist Program with the 50-Year Medalist Study. “Dr. George King realized that the 50-Year Medalists were a really interesting group,” Stephanie said. “When they were diagnosed in the 40s, 50s and early 60s, the prognosis really wasn’t great. He thought they would be an interesting group to characterize.” That first year around 100 Medalists participated in the study. It’s grown to include more than 890 participants from nearly every state in the U.S.
Joslin also offers opportunities for Medalists to interact with each other. Every other year, Joslin hosts a Medalist celebration, a two-day event where more than 200 Medalists and their guests gather for site-seeing in Boston and a presentation of 50-Year Medalist Study research findings. The next celebration will be held in 2015.
In-between gatherings, Joslin hosts a Facebook group for Medalists. “I think a lot of people want to be able to stay in touch with each other,” Stephanie said. “Medalists have such a unique perspective. Because there aren’t that many of them out there, being able to share stories and relate over this unique thing seems to be really beneficial to them. Now that they’re all talking in one place, it’s easier for them to stay in touch.”
Stephanie finds her work with Joslin Medalists truly rewarding. “So many times in medicine, you focus on negative outcomes and risk factors, but this is really a celebration of people’s lives,” she said. “It’s making something positive out of something that was considered a terrible diagnosis fifty years ago. That’s probably the most exciting part of my work, just being a part of recognizing people for a job well done.”
What a life-affirming program! I am so impressed with the tenacity, determination and often positive attitude of the Medalists; their stories are truly inspiring. I applaud Joslin for recognizing their efforts. Be sure to check back here over the next couple of weeks as we feature two inspiring Medalists. My thanks to Stephanie for sharing her insight into the Medalist Program and 50-Year Medalist Study.
All the best,
Disclosure: Stephanie Hastings 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.