When people tell me their diabetes diagnosis stories, I often hear about how diabetes can impact the entire family, as well. I have witnessed truly inspiring tales of support and encouragement, and marvel at how family members’ mindsets and priorities have shifted. Parents, siblings and extended relatives – such as Rachel Scott and Dr. Matt Corcoran – become ambassadors, advocating to improve the lives of those living with diabetes. Tina Sullivan, Research Assistant at Joslin Diabetes Center, is one such relative, and I’m pleased to share her story with you today.
A Show of Support
When Tina was a junior in college, her teenage sister Michelle was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. The Sullivan family rallied around her – Tina and her twin sister, their parents, and an aunt and uncle all kept Michelle company for a week in the hospital, taking turns walking with her in the halls and buying her balloons. Tina even passed up a vacation in Las Vegas with friends to stay and support her sister.
Together the family began learning about life with diabetes, as they had no prior experience with the condition. Tina took an interest in nutrition and adopting healthier eating habits. “I wanted to try to figure out how to help make it easier for her,” Tina said. “I think that probably was helpful for her, just to know that this isn’t just for diabetes; knowing about nutrition can help make us healthier in the long run and our family wants to be healthy, too. I think we tried to reassure her that we should all try to be healthier so she didn’t feel like she was alone.”
After graduating college in 2012, Tina took that support a step further. “I knew right after Michelle was diagnosed that I wanted to do something to help kids living with diabetes,” she said. “So I applied at Joslin to get involved in their research.” Today she works on a study on how to improve continuous glucose monitor use in teens, where she employs motivational interviewing techniques to better understand their challenges.
“What I like most is working with and talking to people,” she said. “I like hearing about how they manage their diabetes. I like helping people and at the same time, I learn so much from families, and it helps me understand what my sister may be experiencing as well.”
Working at Joslin has helped make the diabetes experience even more real for Tina. “I don’t think I really understood what diabetes was until I started working here,” she said. “Now when I talk to my sister, it’s more just to ask her how she’s doing; I try not to put diabetes first. Once I’ve talked to her about her day, then I might go into diabetes, instead of saying, ‘How has your blood sugar been?’ the first thing when she gets home. I realized if you want to help somebody, you really have to be conscious of what you’re saying and how you phrase things.”
The Boston Marathon®
Tina recently saw another opportunity to show her support: last month she joined 14 other members of Team Joslin in running the Boston Marathon. After running her first Boston Marathon in college in 2010 with some friends, she had always wanted to run it again. “This time I wanted to do it for something more than just myself,” she said. “I needed something else to motivate me to get me to be able to do it. I applied and Joslin accepted me as a participant. It’s definitely been an amazing experience.”
Training for a marathon was a challenge for Tina. A knee injury landed her in physical therapy twice a week for two hours each session. She made a deal with her sports medicine doctor and physical therapist to do cross training on an elliptical machine during the week, and only run on the weekends. “It was definitely challenging because when you run outside, compared to running on an elliptical, it’s very different,” she said. “I hate not giving my best to anything, and this race was such an important thing to me.”
Another challenge presented itself the day of the race. All of Tina’s training had included listening to an internet radio app. The day of the race she couldn’t connect to the service after mile two of the 26 total. “I didn’t know how I was going to do it,” she said. “For me, in order to zone out, I need music. But I just kept going. The fans were really helpful. It was amazing to hear how many people were so supportive of people that they didn’t even know. It was really nice.”
To help motivate herself, Tina decided to focus on her running. “I wanted to enjoy the race as much as I could so I decided the one goal I could do was to make sure that I didn’t walk,” she said. “I wanted to be able to say I ran the Boston Marathon. I ended up running the whole thing. It was really, really hard but it definitely helps having a cause that you’re running for, because then it’s not just about you. If you have the right mindset, you can do anything.”
About six miles before the end of the race, Tina met up with a fellow Team Joslin runner, Ashley LaBrier, and they decided to finish the race together. Ashley lives with type 1, which helped make the experience more meaningful for Tina. “I thought, ‘What could be better than crossing the finish line with someone who has diabetes?’” she said. “I’m running for diabetes, she has diabetes, now this will be all about diabetes. We crossed the finish line together. It was really nice to do that with her. It’s so hard to run a marathon and also to live with diabetes, so I just think that’s amazing.” Tina finished the race in five hours, two minutes.
Part of Tina’s participation on Team Joslin was an agreement to help raise $7,500. Despite never having done any fundraising before, Tina was able to raise nearly $9,000, thanks in part to a $2,000 donation from her uncle’s charity club. In total, Team Joslin raised $130,000 to benefit their High Hopes Fund, which goes toward the center’s most urgent needs.
The Road Ahead
Already planning for next year, Tina hopes to run the Boston Marathon again, either as part of Team Joslin, or another diabetes-related cause. “I’d like to do whatever I can,” she said. “I feel like I’m making a difference to a lot of people’s lives. It helps me stay in shape and also I’m helping so many people, so why wouldn’t I do it?”
I was so impressed with this young woman’s commitment – not only to her sister, but to the diabetes community at large. Her dedication and enthusiasm is obvious and heartwarming. I was pleased to hear she hopes to continue working in the diabetes industry – we can definitely use more people like her! My thanks to Tina for sharing her story.
All the best,
Disclosure: Tina Sullivan 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.
Boston Marathon is a registered service mark of Boston Athletic Association (BAA), C/O R. H. Kingsley Brown.