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A Medalist’s Tale: Prudence Barry Is Ready to Say Yes to Fun

Life with diabetes, as a librarian and braillist

Laura Kolodjeski of Sanofi US DiabetesLaura Kolodjeski

The 2014 Sochi games are in full swing – are you still glued to your TV and smartphone like I am? I’ve been enjoying the new events this year. The twists and jumps in the snowboard slopestyle events have been awe-inspiring. The competitors seem to have quite a sense of adventure! We recently talked with someone else with a lifelong desire to try new things, Prudence Barry. Through the years, Prudence has been a wife, mother, grandmother, phlebotomist, librarian, braillist and artist! Like Judi Hoskins and Richard Vaughn, she’s also a Joslin Medalist, and I’d like to share her story with you today.

Prudence Barry
Prudence Barry

When Prudence was 14 in June 1954, she started experiencing extreme thirst and losing weight. “I started drinking quarts of milk at one sitting,” she remembered. “I went the whole summer losing weight. Finally in September my mother drove me off to the doctor and he sent me to the Joslin Diabetes Center with a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes. I went to the two-week session there and I actually got to meet the founder, Elliot Joslin. I don’t think I realized what a wonderful opportunity it was. But looking back at that, I feel so lucky and grateful. I’m just in a really good place because of that.”

Growing up with type 1 diabetes in the 1950s was challenging for Prudence. “It was horrible,” she said. “I was very shy, and terribly embarrassed about having diabetes. I felt like I was the biggest failure in the world. My mother weighed and doled out my food, but I would sneak out and eat chocolate chip cookies any opportunity I could find. I was not a star pupil of being a diabetic by any means. I really had no use for it. Nobody told me this was a lifelong commitment. I just sort of sat around, waiting for it to heal up and go away and of course it never was going to. But you know, you get over stuff like that, so I’m fine now.”

After completing graduate coursework in biochemistry at Penn State, Prudence’s career path has led her in a variety of interesting directions. Starting as a phlebotomist at a hospital in upstate New York, Prudence transitioned to doing blood work in a clinic lab, and then took a job with a small town library. “At the library, I felt as if I’d finally found a way to earn money that I really enjoyed,” she said. “I’ve always been a reader and I’ve always loved books. I just felt as if I had died and gone to heaven when I got that library job.”

Prudence’s career explorations didn’t end there. “When my youngest child started kindergarten, there was a little girl in his class who was blind,” she said. “The Rotary Club organized several volunteers to become braillists. I completed a nine-month course with the Library of Congress to become a certified braillist and brailed a lot of her textbooks and homework assignments. There were three of us who brailed for her until she graduated from high school. I just felt as if I’d finally found something that was really helping somebody and it really made me feel good. I loved it.”

Through her life’s many twists and turns, Prudence has maintained a remarkably positive attitude. “I’ve always had the feeling that nothing is written in stone,” she said. “I see how unhappy some people sometimes seem to be and how much they seem to worry and I think, ah-ah, I don’t want to have that kind of a life. I’ve always been ready to say yes to anything that sounded fun or exciting or worthwhile.”

Prudence attributes part of this attitude to her experience with diabetes. “When I was diagnosed, they told my parents I probably would never make it past 40,” she said. “I think I suddenly had a real grasp on wanting to have a good life and make it count for something. Life is precious and I want to squeeze every drop of goodness out of it I possibly can. It’s been fun. I’ve learned a lot. I’m so much wiser now than I ever was and I can finally see how much more there is to learn. So I’m not ready to quit yet.”

Her adventurous spirit led Prudence to jump out of a plane with two of her children. “I couldn’t figure out what to do for my son’s birthday so I thought I’d take him, my other son and a group of their friends skydiving,” she said. “I absolutely was dying to do it so it seemed like a good excuse. I don’t think I’ll ever forget what it felt like to part ways with the plane. That was the biggest moment in my life. When I did that, I felt like there’s nothing in this world I couldn’t do. It really empowered me.”

The opportunity to help others inspired Prudence to apply for the Joslin 50-Year Medal, which she received in 2008. “The Joslin 50-Year Medalist Study sounded like a way to help and give back,” she said. “I’m not really interested in decoration, but if by getting a Medal I can do some good, then I’m all for it. Fortunately they still had my records from when I was a kid at Joslin. I signed up immediately for the organ donation program. I’ve been tested for their diabetes research and I just feel wonderful I can do that.”

Now in retirement, the mother of three and grandmother of two spends her days hiking with her dog and making art. “When my kids were small, I used to make everything you could make at home, like clothes, toys and Christmas cards,” she said. “That was where I found my joy. It wasn’t until I was 60 when I finally did two years of art school. That was the first real art training I ever had. Now I’m an artist because I love making art. I don’t even pretend to be good at it. I don’t even care anymore. I’m old enough now where it doesn’t have to be good. It can just make me feel good to do it and that’s okay.”

What a delightfully refreshing attitude! I loved so many of her life mottos sprinkled throughout our conversation, especially the idea of being ready to say yes to anything that sounds fun, exciting or worthwhile. That’s wise advice and words to keep in mind as my daughter grows up. What life advice has helped guide your path? Please feel free to share in the comment section below. Also, be sure to check back next week to hear from another Joslin Medalist, Bill Pittman. Many thanks to Prudence for sharing her story and experiences.

All the best,

Laura K.

Disclosure: Prudence Barry 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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