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Grayson Willson Interview – Type 1 Diabetes Advocate

I recently came across an online news article during my weekly roundup of news articles featuring diabetes topics.  I like to find articles about people who are doing great things in their community and may not have a blog or twitter account with a huge following, so we can all try and help support them in their advocacy.  Last week I saw this article from  I encourage you to read the short news story, but a brief summary for context of this interview below.  Grayson was participating as a Patient Champion in the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus and wanted to help spread education and awareness of Type 1 Diabetes.

I think that this is awesome that she did this and I knew instantly that I had to interview her and introduce everybody to another awesome diabetes advocate!  So, without further delay, the interview.

Please introduce yourself (name, twitter, blog [ if any], and area you are from.

My name is Grayson Willson and I’m from Dublin, Ohio

When were you diagnosed with diabetes?

I was diagnosed on January 8th, 2009 when I was 8th grade. I was 13 at the time

 Could you please give a few details about the diagnosis?

After getting a severe case of strep throat on Thanksgiving of 2008, I became frequently thirsty and was always urinating- the classic symptoms but they were easily overlooked. In December alone I lost thirty pounds. On my return back to school after the winter break, I became nauseous and went home. When nothing further happened, my mother was about to return me to school when I began to uncontrollably vomit. We immediately went to my pediatrician who took a urine test and discovered I was a diabetic and my blood sugar was in the 700 range. She said, “Pack your bags; you’re going to the hospital. You’re a diabetic.” The initial shock was ignorant at first- none of my family had any history of diabetes and we had no clue what it meant. We never assumed it would change all of our lives forever.

Can you explain briefly to the readers what the marathon event was and how you came up with the idea of educating people about diabetes?

I was asked by Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus to represent one of the miles in the Columbus Marathon- also known as a patient champion because that was the hospital where I was diagnosed and I currently volunteer there. As a patient champion I was given my own mile to theme and decorate and motivate the marathon runners. I had mile 10, and decorated it as a Candyland. I chose this theme because I felt it was important to show that Type One diabetes doesn’t have as many restrictions as many people believe. Also, every tenth of a mile we had signs with fun facts about type one to educate the runners since many people are only aware of type two. I jumped at this opportunity because I am all for the education about type one because of the lack of it. Type two is a huge issue today with obesity rates in America and I find myself constantly explaining type one and the differences between the two types. I’m sure any type one can agree that we get tired of being told we can’t eat something that we can or that people “hope we get better with some diet and exercise”. I feel that if we are going to hope for a cure, people need to know about our disease and our daily struggles. The more people know and are educated on it, the more change we see. Breast cancer and leukemia awareness foundations are great examples of this and I hope one day that type one foundations can be at their level.

In part of the online news article that I read initially, you mentioned your frustration with people not understanding the different forms of diabetes. What other ways have you attempted to educate people about type 1 diabetes? Have you had any roadblocks in attempting to spread education to people?

I do my best to educated people by getting involved. My family and I are very active in our local chapter of JDRF and we put together events that raise money for a cure and also teach people about type one. I’m willing to tell my story to anyone who is willing to listen, I actually love it. I will do anything I can to be the person to finally get Type One diabetes one the publicity it deserves. Type two in general would probably be the biggest roadblock I have. When I explain type one to people, generalities about type two are constantly interfering with that. I actually get really frustrated that their names are so similar, and would love to have that changed seeing as they are really quite different, but I’m not sure exactly how I would be the one to accomplish that… But it’s a wish ☺

You mentioned that three students in your school all have type 1 diabetes, please provide insight on the support that you all are able to provide each other.

We are often checking up on each other at school. We all have to go to the nurse when we eat at lunch, or when we’re having a low or high. When one of us gets a new utility or something, we show the others and it’s a neat way to learn about the different things out there and how they work. We make sure to have fun with it too- seeing who has the better glucose or who has the better snacks. I’m sure many people can relate to trying to make a game out of it- sometimes I’ll go in the nurse saying “I’m really high and I feel sick.” The nurse, of course, knows I’m talking about my blood sugar. But other students who don’t know who I am always display priceless faces. Diabetes doesn’t always have to be so bad.

Does this make your parents feel more comfortable and safe knowing that there are others at the school with type 1 diabetes?

Having other diabetics in the school are most definitely beneficial. I was the newest diabetic out of all of them and they helped me with new situations I dealt with like my transitions from shots to an insulin pump. With them being there, the district nurse has become very familiar with our disease and how we manage it. I’ve heard about diabetics being the only ones in their entire school district with little experience from any nurses or aids and I would suggest to them that they look on type one diabetic forums where they can ask other diabetics questions they may have. My dad found these extremely helpful when I was first diagnosed.

I particularly loved the idea of decorating with candy during the marathon to show that people with diabetes can have sugar. Did you receive a lot of questions about this and questions about why you chose this theme?

Surprisingly, a lot of people understood. I would just say, “My theme is Candyland to prove myths about diabetes wrong” and they would get it. I’ve been asked more questions about what I can and can’t eat outside of the marathon especially when someone witnesses me bolusing (this was just autocorrected to blousing. Even Microsoft Word doesn’t understand hahah!) for the first time. Easily I can put together a list of FAQs I’ve come across in the past almost four years- “Does that hurt?” “What’s that in your pocket?” “So that’s like, in you??” “Do you sleep with it?” “Wait, so can you eat that?” “Is that bad?” I can go on, but I bet you completely understand.

What words of advice would you like to give to those who would like to “do something” in their community to support diabetes, but don’t know how or what to do?

I would say get involved with JDRF. The American Diabetes Foundation is great also, but it encompasses both type one and two. I want to turn my focus to type one and, of course, educating people on it. Throw together a easy fundraiser- it can be anything from a bake sale to a night of ice skating to bingo. We always say think of something you love and give it meaning. I love art, and made an art piece for the hospital to use as an auction item for their fundraising. It really doesn’t need to be as complicated as people think. If that’s not someone’s style, just teach a few people about type one. Friends, family, classmates- every person counts.

Any other last words of wisdom or encouragement to the readers?

I was diagnosed when I was 13, a really odd age for type one. At first it was rough because I had lead a normal life and it was much harder adjusting to a new one as a teenager than it would’ve been as a child. But what got me through it was that I decided that I wasn’t going to let this disease beat me- that I got it for a reason. Turn your weakness into a strength. Being diabetic makes me unique; it makes me who I am. I would suggest that all diabetics be proud of who they are because we are strong people who got dealt a rough hand. You just have to learn how to play your cards right.

** On an additional side note. Grayson’s father has mentioned that he will attend a #dsma chat, so please be sure to welcome him like all other newbie #DSMA attendees.