Every day, people with diabetes are doing amazing things that go unnoticed. No, we're not talking about climbing mountains or running marathons or biking across America... just everday folk with broken pancreases who are living their best possible lives.
Telling their stories in podcast form is what a budding non-profit organization is all about: "Diabetics Doing Things," the brainchild of Rob Howe, a Texas type 1 diagnosed as a teenager twelve years ago. We're thrilled to have chatted with Rob recently about this podcast venture and his own story as a former professional basketball player with T1D (!)
I'll actually be traveling to the JDRF's North Texas summit in late January to be part of a panel on diabetes social media that will Rob will be moderating, and in advance of that (and giving a diaversary hat-tip to Rob for his recent New Year's Day Diaversary), we're excited to share our recent interview with Rob.
An Interview with T1D Advocate Rob Howe
DM) Hi Rob, can you start by sharing your diabetes diagnosis story?
RH) Sure! So I just celebrated my 13th diaversary on New Year's Day. I was diagnosed at age 16 on Jan. 1, 2005, I remember the night before I was out with my friends and I must've gone to the restroom like 30 times. I woke up and was really nauseous then looked at myself in the mirror and noticed how skinny I looked. I was active and in the middle of basketball season so it didn't really make sense. So I went downstairs and told my mom how I was feeling, and we went to the urgent care and they told me I had T1D and needed to go to the hospital immediately. The 20-minute car ride that followed was one of the lowest points in my life. No one else in my family lives with diabetes, and I didn't know what it meant for my hopes and dreams or my life going forward.
When I arrived at Children's Medical Center in Dallas, I was immediately told by their staff that all my dreams for my life were still valid, as long as I took care of my diabetes. I'll never forget that moment, and it has been instrumental to my life with diabetes to this day.
You used to play pro basketball, right?
My whole life all I wanted to do was play basketball. It was my first love, and it was the thing I had put the most work into throughout my life. So after I got diagnosed as a teenager, the most important question I had was "Will I still be able to play basketball?" I was super-pumped when the answer was "Yes!" After my diagnosis I was first team all-state in high school, and went on to be a four-year scholarship player at the University of Colorado - Colorado Springs, and then as a result of sheer stubbornness and a ton of really absurd circumstances I was able to realize my dream of playing professional basketball and became the first T1D member of the Washington Generals exhibition basketball team (like the Globetrotters).
Did you struggle with volatile blood sugars while competing with such high stakes?
Yes, there were certainly a lot of ups and downs with T1D throughout that journey, but I think the biggest victory was when I was able to come up with a formula that would allow me to play college and pro ball without going super-high before games due to adrenaline. I'm a person who carries a lot of weight and stress on myself during intense competition, and that stress and cortisol would cause my blood sugar to go nuts. So overcoming that I think was the biggest victory for me.
How did your pro sports career end?
I got fired. Seriously. But it turned out that pursuing that dream had a big impact on my life. As I've testified before, I never otherwise would've moved from Denver to Dallas, found a great new career at Splash Media and discovered something the amazing and weird improv comedy group at Dallas Comedy House.
I got the chance to visit 19 countries and 30 some-odd states, saw Kim Kardashian in the Kuwait airport and hang with Special Forces in Afghanistan. It was a great ride!
Do you still play basketball recreationally?
I do! It's still one of my favorite things. I recently started playing with a CGM on, which was really cool because it allowed me to see what my blood sugar was during competition, which was something I'd always wondered. One of the nice things about basketball is in order to stay good, you have to stay in good physical condition, which is also great for your T1D. So in effect, my favorite thing in the world allows me to live a better life with diabetes, so I'm going to do it as long as I can.
What do you do now professionally?
I am professionally distracted (chuckles).
Early in 2017, I left my job as managing partner at one of the first social media agencies in Dallas and started my own agency, Recreation Dallas. My business partner and I just celebrated our one-year anniversary, it has been an awesome journey so far and I'm looking forward to what the future holds.
What we do at Recreation Dallas is solve problems for brands that drive their business through social and digital media. It's a great way to be creative and ultimately help people, which is why I think I like it so much.
On the side, I also teach and perform improv comedy at the Dallas Comedy House and noodle around with many other projects that I love.
OK, so where does your project 'Diabetics Doing Things' come in?
As the name says, it's about telling the stories of people with diabetes and the amazing things they do -- whether they're professional athletes or travelers or researchers or just regular people overcoming the daily struggles of living with T1D. I launched the website in November 2015, and I think our first video episode launched Jan. 3.
I released 60 episodes in 2017 (available on iTunes), and have 25 or so already recorded and ready to go for next year. I've gotten to interview T1Ds from more than 10 countries, and been able to interact with the T1D community in a way I never imagined would be possible. We've just passed the 100,000 download mark, partnered with some awesome companies and released our first apparel line as well.
How did you come up with this idea?
Telling those stories are important, especially for people who are recently diagnosed. I wanted a kid who was searching for "Diabetics Doing X" after his diagnosis to be able to find a place where they could see all the amazing things people with Diabetes were doing and know they could accomplish whatever their dreams were.
The idea actually came to me when I was in my hotel room in Colombia, but that's a long story.
Basically, PLEASE travel. It'll give you the space and experiences you need to come up with your best stuff...
Gotcha. But back to how you started telling diabetes stories...?
When I was in college I used T1D as an example in a class and realized that was the first time I'd been vocally open about my T1D to a group of strangers. After class, a friend who I knew from around campus but wasn't super close with approached me and told me that he didn't know I had diabetes, but he did know that I played on the basketball team, and that his younger cousin had been diagnosed and had been discouraged because his doctor had told him it wasn't safe for him to run triathlons anymore. He asked if I'd exchange emails with him and offer some encouragement. So I did. I told him my story and what my doctors had told me, and we had a good couple emails back and forth.
A few months later, I got an email from his address with no subject line. Attached to the email was a photo of him in his triathlon jersey holding his participation trophy. He had run his first Triathlon. I'll never forget the feeling I got from that email. So, long story short, that's why.
Any concern with using the controversial term 'diabetic' in the name?
I think people give too many thoughts to labels out of fear. Part of what makes "Diabetics Doing Things" unique is the message about confidence and empowerment. There may be people out there who aren't fond of the word diabetic, and that's their business. The stories we tell are about much more than just diabetes, they're about real people overcoming challenges to accomplish their dreams -- whether those dreams are to climb Mount Everest, play their sport at the highest level or just live happily from day to day. Anyone gets caught up in the semantics is missing the point. Even our first apparel line pokes fun at the label, showing the word "diabetic" in quotes, as a firm stance against the idea that one word could remotely define a person.
What are your hopes for “Doing Things” in the future?
We're working on transitioning the corporate structure into a non-profit. We've started the process and it will take a bit of time, but we're really encouraged by the traction we've been able to gain in such a short time. That's 100% due to the support of guests on the podcast and organizations like JDRF, BeyondType1 and companies like Medtronic Diabetes. They've all been big supporters of what we do from the get-go, and that's been huge.
For the future, I've got some audacious goals but let's just start with 2018 goals. We'll release a book, I'm going to hire a full-time employee, do a mini-documentary and lock down the "Diabetics Doing Things" world tour. That should do it for now.
Any other diabetes advocacy or initiatives you've been involved with?
I work very closely with JDRF Dallas and am the co-chair of our YLC (Young Leadership Committee) chapter. I'm also a Medtronic Ambassador for Medtronic Diabetes and work with BeyondType1 in an unofficial capacity but I've got a lot of love for them.
What else would you like to say to the D-Community?
I'll leave you with this: My only regret is that it took me over 10 years to get involved in the T1D community. It has improved my life in ways I can't quantify and interacting with other people who know what I go through on a day-to-day basis has been extremely rewarding. The other day someone commented on one of my Instagram posts that they didn't have any friends with diabetes. I couldn't help but remember that my life was very similar UNTIL I made it a priority to find T1D friends.
So use your voice, be intentional and get involved with the Diabetes Community, even if it's just online. You won't be sorry you did.