Earlier this week, we featured the story of Quinn Nystrom, a passionate diabetes advocate since the age of 10. I recently had the opportunity to speak with another diabetes advocate, Gina Gavlak, RN, BSN. As Diabetes Program Development Coordinator at the Diabetes and Endocrine Center at Lakewood Hospital, a Cleveland Clinic hospital; staff nurse in the emergency department at MetroHealth Medical Center; and a volunteer with the American Diabetes Association (the Association) for more than 20 years, Gina has a long history of championing the cause of those living with diabetes. I’m excited to share her story with you today.
Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 10, Gina actually did not foresee a future in diabetes care or advocacy. “I knew I wanted to be in healthcare but I did not want to do anything related to diabetes,” she said. “I didn’t want diabetes to be my whole life. But it’s kind of interesting; if you pay attention as you go along in life, doors open and allow you different opportunities. In 2006, I was offered a position to help build the Lakewood Hospital Diabetes and Endocrine Center, which was exciting. That has allowed me to further use my professional background as a nurse, as well as my personal background as somebody living with diabetes, to be able to help other people.”
The shared experience of living with diabetes allows Gina to offer relevant insight. “I think the personal touches make the difference,” she said. “Even if it’s just spending a couple of minutes with somebody and letting them know that I know what it’s like. It’s tough. I try to let them know that you do the best you can and to always look for more information so you can continue moving forward. There may be times when you get off track, but the most important thing is not to beat yourself up. Get back on track and get yourself connected with the people who may be able to help you succeed.”
Sharing her personal story also aids Gina’s diabetes advocacy efforts as National Advocacy Committee Chair for the Association. “People need to know your story,” she said. “One of the best ways you can advocate for the needs of people with diabetes is by sharing your personal story to those who make decisions, whether it’s your members of Congress or your state legislators. Your personal story helps people connect. Decision makers can get data and statistics, but it’s your story that really makes a huge difference. Nobody can ever tell you your story is wrong because you’re the one living it. Your story is what they remember.”
For Gina, her professional work in healthcare and her volunteer advocacy work complement each other. “If a patient is having issues with their diabetes management at work, for example, I can work with our staff to make sure they know different resources they can provide,” she said. “Or I can connect the patient with the right people at the Association’s national office in legal advocacy to help further. I think that’s a really beneficial service that we can provide here.”
Wearing multiple hats also helps Gina stay in touch with the needs of her community. “If you’re going to make any effective changes in your community, you have to know what they need,” she said. “Knowing that helped the Diabetes and Endocrine Center develop a program that provides some financial assistance to people who either don’t have insurance or have inadequate insurance coverage to be able to afford their diabetes medications, testing supplies and education. It makes a big difference, not just for that person but for their family and our communities.”
Gina thrives on the impact she makes in the community. “What keeps me passionate and motivated and engaged is being around other people who either have diabetes or who have family members with diabetes,” she said. “Everything I do with the Association, everything I do at the Diabetes and Endocrine Center and in the emergency department, it all helps keep me motivated and energized. There’s always something that will reinvigorate me to help better manage my diabetes but then also to keep pushing forward to help make changes.”
One of Gina’s favorite mottos is, “be the change you want to see in the world.” “I try to keep that in mind as much as I can,” she said. “That really helps guide my efforts and keeps me in this for the right reason. When I was younger, the doctors told me that I couldn’t have children, that the chance of developing terrible complications or dying was too high. But due to research and further understanding of diabetes and diabetes management over the years, I now have two beautiful, healthy kids. To me, that’s a huge testament to why it’s important to speak out.”
With that thought in mind, Gina encourages others to get involved. “It’s nice to be around other people who face the same challenges and also who have celebrated similar successes,” she said. “You don’t get that unless you’re around other people with diabetes. Volunteering, I think, is incredibly important. Obviously, you can do that in a variety of different capacities. It can make a big difference for a lot of people. I really encourage people to get involved because not only does it help you but it helps other people as well.”
It’s so clear to me that Gina is incredibly vested in addressing the systemic issues related to diabetes care. I applaud the approach she’s taking and the effort she’s making in her community; it really is to be commended. Many thanks to Gina for sharing her story.
All the best,
Disclosure: Gina Gavlak 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.