One of the most magical times in diabetes happens every year in July, with the annual Friends For Life conference put on by the non-profit Children With Diabetes organization.
Don't let the name fool you -- it's not just for kids. Adults with diabetes are an ever-expanding force at FFL, including at this year's 18th annual event at the Disney Resort in Orlando, FL.
Roughly 2,000 people came from as far as South Africa to be at the 2017 conference, including 700 first-timers -- and 47% of those attending overall were adults, the highest percentage of any summer FFL conference to date!
"It reflects the fact that many of our teens have grown to be adults and are continuing to attend, and that we offer content interesting to T1 adults of any age," says Michigan D-Mom Laura Billetdeaux, CWD's VP of Education and Programs, who helped CWD founder Jeff Hitchcock kick off the annual FFL experience nearly two decades ago.
This isn't a typical conference like so many with a distinct professional flavor. Rather, this one's specifically designed for people living with diabetes and those in our lives such as parents, grandparents, spouses and friends. The warm fuzzy vibe of peer support and fun, along with a unique educational drive and fire-sparking energy, are what make FFL so successful. Special wristbands referred to as the "green bracelet of community" mark everyone on hand who lives with diabetes personally.
Our team was bummed to be unable to attend this year, but we were grateful to follow the action from Orlando via hashtag #CWDFFL2017 on Twitter, and talk at length with organizers and attendees. From that, we've put together the following recap of the highlights of this year's conference.
Highlights from Friends For Life 2017
The Award(s) Go To...
Congrats to Dr. Irl Hirsch for receiving the CWD Distinguished Service Award!
An endocrinologist and researcher at the University of Washington School of Medicine and longtime type 1 himself, Irl's been an incredible voice and advocate in our D-Community over the years, from championing the importance of glucose variability beyond just A1C to more recently raising the level of conversation on the issue of insulin pricing in the United States. So much passion deserves recognition! Congrats Irl!
We were also excited to hear that Brenda Hitchcock (wife of CWD founder Jeff Hitchcock) won a much-deserved honor, thanks to her countless hours writing grants and doing behind-the-scenes work for CWD.
Beta Bionics' iLet Gen 4
While FFL is not a technology conference per se, many companies host sessions to show off their latest devices and solicit feedback from D-families on design. Anything relating to new, upcoming closed loop systems always makes a splash at FFL.
This year, Beta Bionics unveiled its 4th generation prototype of the iLet (bionic pancreas) system and showed first glimpses of what this next-gen tech will look like. Remember, it was just a year ago we first saw the third-generation iLet.
The Gen 4 iLet will be 57% smaller and thinner, with an improved touchscreen and curved wrap-around glass. It will have one cartridge pre-filled with glucagon and one pre-filled/manual-fill insulin cartridge. It will also feature Bluetooth for data-sharing with a mobile app.
While Beta Bionics certainly created buzz at FFL, many were disappointed to hear that the timeline for the iLet coming to market is now later than originally expected. Lead researcher Ed Damiano now says they're looking to bring an insulin-only product to market first in 2019, and the dual-hormone system will follow in roughly 2021 -- with expected pivotal trials in the coming years. But hey, it's still not too far off!
Overheard by one attendee who got to play with the iLet 4 prototype at FFL: "It's the most amazing piece of Type 1 diabetes hardware that I have ever seen in my entire life. The innovations are brilliant and beyond the grasp of what others currently have."
Expo and Presentation Highlights
One of the biggest highlights for many at FFL is the exhibit hall, which is less product-focused than most similar events, and has more fun built in -- from games, activities and giveaways to celebs making motivational appearances. Olympic skier Kris Freeman, racecar drivers Charlie Kimball and Ryan Reed, and singers like Crystal Bowersox and RaeLynn are just some who've graced the stage at FFL. This is huge, given that it inspires kids and really embodies the "You Can Do This" message, which is key for this event more than most.
Our advocate and D-blogger friend Kelly Kunik once again had a booth for the #IWishPeopleKnewThatDiabetes campaign, that invited attendees to use a marker to share their feelings on whatever they'd want to the world at large to know about our illness. Clearly from reading, you can see the mood is more positive than negative, and a common theme is diabetes doesn't have to limit PWDs.
None of this means there weren't serious topics addressed at FFL too, of course.
Diabetes at 212 Degrees: Dr. Desmond Schatz, a well-known endo and researcher in Florida, gave a moving opening keynote talk titled "Diabetes at 212 Degrees" referring to “the boiling point of water where it erupts with urgency” – to transform the “invisible disease” to a highly visible crisis. That speech got a standing ovation!
Community Connections: Our podcasting DOC friend Stacey Simms gave a closing keynote that seemed to tie everything together, emphasizing how peer support and community connections can make life with diabetes so much better.
Oh, and the sessions themselves...?
You name the diabetes topic, and there's a session you could find addressing it at this year's FFL. Sessions covered everything from spouse-specific issues to those relevant to parents and grandparents, sessions on sex and relationships, and many on data-sharing and how the #WeAreNotWaiting community has grown so much in recent years.
"There were a LOT of new sessions and cutting-edge topics," Laura tells us, noting that her organizational tasks kept her too busy to attend any of the sessions herself.
Tracks for Transitional Years: New this year was a track especially for "emerging adults" -- not teens, but not quite full-fledged adults. The goal for these sessions was to offer content appropriate for young adults, such as dealing with insurance issues and understanding their legal rights as they enter the workforce. Both Jeff and Laura say these were very well-received, and they're excited to build this track out in 2018.
Conference in a Conference: These fast-track mini-sessions included many shorter looks at topics within the timeframe of one regular session, designed for the teens as a way to offer them a chance to choose sessions that meet their needs (and short attention spans). The feedback was uniformly positive, as well.
Takeaway from a Third-Timer
We heard from D-peep Morgan Shepard from Michigan, who attended FFL for the third time this year after her diagnosis at age 17 in 2011. Here's what she tells us, about what stood out the most about her time in Florida:
"(The) experience brings tears to my eyes and a bright smile to my face. The week was full of infinite happy memories and a few sad moments, quite similar to how life with diabetes is.
"This year I appreciated the addition of the sessions specifically geared toward young adults... such as insurance for young adults, legal rights as a T1D, and adulting 101. But more than the sessions, I wanted to focus on the community and the amazing people within it. Over the last few years I have built some incredible friendships that I have been able to grow and begin new ones that I know will last forever. These are the people that you meet and instantly feel like you have known them since the beginning of time because they have shared similar experiences. They were there for me when I received a bit of unexpected news during my retinal exam early in the week. And in that second of momentary panic, I knew I was right where I was supposed to be. Among my people. With my tribe. Those moments of togetherness, love, and support are what makes FFL so magical. That feeling of ‘me too’. That sense of knowing that whatever diabetes throws my way, I have a tribe that has my back no matter what."
Clearly, the friendships and support FFL fosters are incredible. Thank you to everyone who attended and shared their experiences.
For further coverage, see some blog thoughts from D-Dad Tom Karlya, the beloved master of ceremonies at FFL each year; Kerri's Recipie for FFL at SixUntilMe, and Ashlyn diagnosed two years ago at age 19 who blogs at Trail of Test Strips).
We can't wait to join the fun once again at next year's event, slated for July 10-15, 2018!