It’s no secret I’m a big fan of Manny Hernandez’ diabetes advocacy work. From the Big Blue Test to TuDiabetes and so much more, Manny is tireless in his efforts to bring awareness to diabetes. One way his Diabetes Hands Foundation (DHF) encourages this is through its DHF Seeds micro-grant program, which funds projects aimed at connecting, educating or empowering people touched by diabetes. I’d like to introduce you to Mary Fairweather Dexter, one of the recipients of the 2012 DHF Seeds grants, and share a little bit about her project.
When Mary was 48, she noticed she was losing weight, despite frequent hunger, and was very thirsty. A blood test revealed high blood sugar and Mary received a type 2 diabetes diagnosis. As she continued losing weight, Mary also began to experience extreme fatigue, which prompted her to see an endocrinologist. The specialist ordered more lab work and sent it off to the Mayo Clinic for analysis. The results indicated Mary lives with Latent Autoimmune Diabetes in Adults, or LADA, rather than type 2.
As Mary began reading about LADA, she discovered what she thought to be recurring misperceptions and misinformation about diabetes. With 40 years in theater, an idea started forming. “I wanted to write a play to try to give people more realistic information about how this endocrine disorder works and the different kinds of diabetes,” she said. “I thought maybe it would be more accessible in the theater, that people might come and hear it, whereas they might not pick up a journal article to read about it. I wanted to try and get it into a form that people could accept and understand.”
In 2012, Mary learned about the DHF Seeds program. “I saw that they were looking for projects that would educate, empower and connect people and I thought theater does all three of those things,” she said. “I had been talking about someday getting around to writing a play about diabetes and the story of how I was diagnosed. The Seeds program was the kick in the pants that I needed to start the project.” Mary applied for a grant and was selected as a recipient in August 2012.
When Mary started working on her play, some friends encouraged her to collaborate with Matt DeFour, a journalist who lives with type 1 diabetes. It was soon apparent they had different writing styles and goals, so each created their own one-act play. Matt’s play, “Two Diabetics,” depicts the differences between experiences for those who live with type 1 diabetes and those who live with type 2.
Writing her play, “The Sweet Lowdown,” proved to be an exercise in research and revisions for Mary. “I read everything that I could get my hands on about the history of diabetes,” she recalled. “I’m a part of several online diabetes communities which were very helpful. And a lot of it came from my experience. Then I would just write, write, write, and then I’d say okay, I like this and this. That’s not too bad, maybe we can build on that. Then the rest of this needs to go away. One version somebody said was like a very long term paper with all the notes. It was hard to explain the science so it would be entertaining and not some angry rant or a dull lecture.”
What Mary ended up with was a sort of vaudeville show, mixing music, dance and comedy with talking lab mice, dancing “glucose girls,” a high wire act and a vampire phlebotomist. Metaphorical situations help describe and explain different biological functions related to diabetes.
“For example, in my experience, my blood sugar level can be unpredictable,” Mary said. “Sometimes my beta cells decide to work and sometimes they slack off. So we have ‘Billy the Beta Cell’ as a recurring character throughout the show. There’s one scene that takes place in a store, where Billy informs the manager that he has waxed the floor and rearranged the stock, and later he may come back to work or he may just go fishing. It was a way to describe my experience.”
Another scene spotlights hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia. “My lighting and sound designers were really helpful in setting the scene so it felt odd to the eye,” she said. “I give monologues that sound like I do when either my blood sugar’s too high or too low and sort of the thought processes I experience when I go through that. We’re trying to subtly get people to understand what it can be like to be diabetic, what day-to-day life can be like and what we’re up against.”
Mary made the decision to play herself in the production, while her husband directed and produced it. “I’m very glad that I did it. I love being on stage,” she said. “It was a little scary, though; I’d go out there and it’s probably more naked than one is usually comfortable being. It’s an emotional nakedness. It was hard to stand up and talk about my experiences, wondering if people were going to believe the story and understand what I was trying to say.”
It appears people got her message; response to the play’s inaugural run was good. “People came up to me backstage and they were very excited about the show,” she said. “One woman talked to me for a long time one night; she’s been married for 20 years, and her husband has been diabetic for 60 years. She wanted me to know how much the show meant to her in understanding what her husband goes through. People seemed to value the work that we did.”
The play is now available for production outside of Mary’s local venue. “I told Diabetes Hands Foundation that if anyone else wanted to use my script in a different city that I would be amenable to that,” she said.
Outside of her play, Mary continues her efforts to spread awareness about diabetes. “I’m a substitute teacher and students see me testing my blood sugar in class,” she said. “Some of them are knowledgeable because their family members or friends are diabetic but some of them have questions about it. I’ve always been very open about explaining things. I figure my job in a classroom is to educate. Some of it may be teaching English or math, but diabetes is also something I feel that they need to know. I’ve always explained to them what it is and what it isn’t.”
I applaud the Diabetes Hands Foundation for encouraging creative projects like Mary’s play to help connect, educate and empower people touched by diabetes. The theater is such a unique venue for raising awareness, and it sounds like an entertaining show, as well as educational. I’m sure those dancing “glucose girls” are quite memorable! My thanks to Mary for sharing her story.
All the best,
Disclosure: Mary Fairweather Dexter 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.
DHF Seeds is made possible, in part, through funding provided by Sanofi US Diabetes.