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Ernesto Prado

The NASA engineer taking on the “rocket science” of diabetes

It’s just the kind of flip comment those out of the diabetes loop might say to those in it. “Really? You’re struggling? It’s not like it’s … rocket science.” 

But is it? Who better to answer that question than an actual rocket scientist, and one who happens to live with type 1 diabetes.

Ernesto Prado
Ernesto Prado

“Rockets are governed by a certain set of principles and laws,” says Ernesto Prado, a NASA technical project manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 15. “Diabetes? There is so much we still don’t understand.” Prado, now 29, explains that it’s so much about variables – like a person’s mood, stress levels, the weather. “At NASA, we have huge teams to balance things out. With diabetes, you pretty much just have yourself.”

Prado should know. His diagnosis was a bumpy one. Coming from a low-income family, his care at the start was substandard. In fact, his first endocrinologist told his mother that Prado’s passions at the time – football, track and wrestling – were now out of reach. “My mom ran with that,” he says.

But his reaction? He put all that energy and passion into learning, and into his childhood dream of becoming an astronaut. While people living with diabetes cannot fill that specific role, Prado came up with a plan. “I said, ‘Okay, I cannot be an astronaut. What can I do that comes closest to that? And I focused on it.”

He worked his way through UC Davis, with a combined major in mechanical engineering and aeronautical sciences and engineering, pretty much acing it, while working two jobs on the side to pay for it all. But, as he now confesses, he wasn’t acing life with diabetes. “I got to college and I just stopped managing it, which is terrible,” he says.

His A1C climbed to double digits, and it wasn’t until after he graduated and landed his first job at NASA working in the neutral buoyancy lab, which simulates conditions in space, that he had a revelation. He wanted to participate in a pool exercise with the astronauts that involved scuba diving. But with his condition where it was then, he says, “The doctors would not clear me.” That was the moment he realized that all the cool things he could do at NASA and in his career might go away because of diabetes. “Or more exactly,” he explains, “because of me and how I was handling my diabetes.”

So he focused anew on his health. “I started running, eating five small meals a day and I found a new doctor who really knew what he was doing,” says Prado, who also went on an insulin pump.

The end result? He got to be in the water with those astronauts.

But that’s not the end. Prado has big dreams and knows that working as hard on his diabetes as he does on his career will help them become real.

“I want to be a flight controller,” he says. “NASA is hesitant; they’ve never had one with type 1 diabetes. But I’m like: ‘Guys? I have mission control right here on my belt.’”

For now, he adds, “I’d like to lead bigger and bigger NASA projects. I have huge dreams.” And a focus to make it happen, diabetes or not. After all, it might just be rocket science.

Moira McCarthy is an acclaimed writer, author and public speaker who has shared her story – and lessons – on raising a child living with type 1 diabetes in the media, through books and on her popular blog, McCarthy has appeared on CNN LiveGood Morning America and Fox News. She was recently recognized as the JDRF International Volunteer of the Year. Her six books include the top-selling The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children with Juvenile Diabetes and her latest Raising Teens with Diabetes: A Survival Guide for Parents. McCarthy is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.

© 2016 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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