I have known Olivia Tabola since I was five years old, and I remember when during our fifth grade year she was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes. I knew what diabetes was because my mom had it, but I didn’t know any of the idiosyncrasies, or just how it could change someone’s entire life. Olivia has taken her diagnosis with Type-1 diabetes and used it to inspire and influence young people in a positive way.
Q: What is your name, how old are you, where do you go to school?
A: My name is Olivia Tabola, I’m 19 years old, and I go to UConn.
Q: What are you studying?
A: I am an allied health sciences major. I’m in the health sciences concentration too, which is kind of just a little bit more specific…like you do public policy, or health management, or stuff like that, but I’m specifically on the science track.
Q: When were you diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes?
A: I was diagnosed in 2011, when I was in 5th grade. I was 10. I had symptoms for a few weeks and then I went to the hospital and they were like, “Yeah, you have diabetes.”
Q: How much/what did you know about diabetes before being diagnosed?
A: I didn’t know much about it. My mom knew about it because her dad had it so that’s kind of how I went to the hospital in the first place. And the only thing that I knew about diabetes before was that a girl I went to school with had it. I remember specifically seeing her doing certain things and being like, “Oh! So that’s what I have now.”
Q: Can you give a brief description of what Type-1 diabetes is?
A: So basically it’s an auto-immune disease where the beta cells in your pancreas stop producing insulin, so the alpha cells attacked the beta cells thinking that they were foreign, and then they stop producing insulin. So my body can’t produce the insulin to break down the sugars, so I need to use artificial insulin to do that.
Q: Take me through a day in your life.
A: So whenever I wake up, I test my blood sugar, well, I am supposed to but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. Then I have to calibrate my sensor, which is why I test in the morning because I need to calibrate at least every twelve hours. My sensor reads my blood sugar levels so I don’t have to test as often as I used to. And then, whenever I eat breakfast I need to bolus for it, in other words, give myself insulin for the carbs that I’m eating. And then I kind of go throughout my day, I can do anything else, and then the next time I eat, which is normally around lunchtime, depending on whether or not I tested for breakfast I’ll test for lunch. Normally I don’t test except for every 12 hours because I don’t really need to. Like they say you should do it three to four times a day to calibrate, but I just don’t. I don’t think it’s necessary. But I always have to bolus before I eat. I normally test again at bedtime because that’s about the twelve hours. What does bolus mean? So I have a pump, and I program the pump to deliver insulin to me whenever I need it, so it continuously does it throughout the day, but then a bolus is just a small burst of insulin depending on my blood sugar, so if it’s high it’ll give me more insulin, and the amount of food I’m eating. I have a carb-ratio that determines the number of units of insulin to give based on the number of carbs.
Q: How has your experience with diabetes changed since going to college?
A: I’ve always kind of been independent about doing things myself, so it hasn’t really been as big of an adjustment as I thought. I’m better at taking care of myself at school, that’s what I’ve found especially being at home after college because I’m kind of on top of it. I know I really need to be on top of it because it’s a bigger deal if something happens at school than happens at home. But it was a pretty smooth adjustment for me. I know some people have a harder time, but it wasn’t that hard for me.
Q: What’s the typical reaction you receive when people find out you have diabetes?
A: I’ve never really had people treat me differently. There are a lot of misconceptions about diabetes between Type 1 and Type 2 because Type 1 diabetes is when your body can’t produce insulin at all. Meanwhile, Type 2 is when your body just can’t use that insulin. And a lot of people think, “Oh, if you have diabetes you ate a lot of sugar and that’s why.” But no, that’s not how it works. I’ve gotten the, “You don’t look like you’re diabetic,” before but I then say, “What does that look like? Sorry! You can’t tell me I don’t look diabetic when I am.” But, yeah, people just ask questions about what I do differently.
Q: Do the questions ever annoy you?
A: No, I like talking about it; I know some people don’t like talking about it and they don’t want to deal with it at all. They just keep it a secret, but I don’t mind talking about my diabetes diagnosis because it’s just another way to get more people to know the difference, [and] educate more people about it.
Q: Talk about Clara Barton camp, and what it means to you.
A: So I have been going there for nine summers, basically the whole time I’ve had diabetes. I started off not wanting to go at all— my mom went with me to family camp at first. People find [the idea of family camp] so weird, and looking back I’m like, “Why did I go to family camp.” It was so stupid, but I was just so nervous about going. So family camp is at the end of the summer, it’s the last week and it’s basically regular camp except parents can go. Some people bring their whole entire families there. The family camp had more of a learning aspect, including teaching participants about diabetes, but it just seemed like a regular camp to me.
The camp just completely changed everything for me because, before going, I didn’t even want to go at all. I cried in the parking lot when I was there. But it changed everything in terms of both diabetes and just me being independent because I like didn’t really like going to day camps either. The idea of attending a camp was just never my thing, and I told my mom once, “Never send me to summer camp.” Then, I got diabetes and she was like, “Well, we’re going!” Every year I kind of built up going longer and longer, like now I spend straight-eight weeks there each summer. That’s one huge difference that I’ve seen with that. Diabetes is such a… like, you always feel alone, with diabetes, because like no one really understands it in day-to-day life, you’re kind of just like doing everything on your own. But then with camp, everyone there has it so everyone understands, everyone is going through it together. The friends I’ve made at camp I stick with, I text my friends from camp every day. Whenever there is anything to do with diabetes, when we’re just updating each other on our lives, just every single day that’s what we do, so that was a big change for me.
Q: Has having diabetes influenced what you want to do in life/your career path?
A: Yes, so obviously when I was 10 years old I had no clue what I wanted to do. But now I definitely want to do something related to diabetes. It’s still such a vague thing that I don’t know exactly what that will be. From working at the camp I’ve noticed that a lot of people hate having diabetes, and it’s something about them that they don’t tell anyone, they just keep it to themselves. Whereas I’ve never really been that kind of person. When someone finds out I’m like okay, whatever, but for some people, it’s like the worst thing ever. So [I’d like to] possibly work with people to help them realize that [diabetes is] not a big deal. When you don’t tell people that you have diabetes it’s more dangerous to your health, because you won’t be taking care of yourself as you should when you’re in front of people. I also want to possibly work towards a cure, or a different treatment option, which is kind of the more science-y part of it.
Q: What would you want to tell young people who are being newly diagnosed with diabetes?
A: I think the biggest thing is to reach out to other diabetics because otherwise, you’re going to feel alone. I felt that for a few years before I found my solid group of friends who really understood everything with me. It just helps management so much, when you can complain to people who understand.