Diabetes Awareness Month: Three separate journeys, one collective mission

Three UAB employees share their diabetes journey and provide healthy tips in honor of Diabetes Awareness Month.
Written by: Emma Shepard
Media contact: Hannah Echols

inside Sloane Michael 300x300Michael Sloane, Ph.D.Diabetes affects more than 37 million Americans of all different ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds. Alabama has one of the highest rates, with approximately 14 percent of its adult population diagnosed with the disease. Additionally, research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham shows that the state saw an increase in Type 2 diabetes in its youth during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The diabetes epidemic places physical, mental and economic burdens on patients living with the disease. For Diabetes Awareness Month, three employees from UAB share their experiences living with diabetes. The three perspectives show the diversity of those with diabetes and discuss fighting the disease with perseverance, support and education.  

From diabetes diagnosis to marathon runner

Michael Sloane, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Psychology, grew up in the rolling countryside of Ireland, where processed foods were far from a dietary staple — everything was farm to table. His family grew all their own vegetables and fruits, raised chickens for eggs, and bought meat from a neighboring farmer or fresh cuts from the town butcher.

When he came to the United States in 1979 to complete his doctoral degree, he was plunged into a consumer market riddled with highly processed food choices. The jolt from farm fresh to an abundance of processed foods, coupled with a lack of active lifestyle choices, eventually led to a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis in 2013.

Since then, Sloane has championed being active and adopting healthy lifestyle choices to lower his A1C levels and manage his diabetes. His approach began with smart choices like smaller portions, no sodas or orange juice, and walking around the indoor track at the UAB Campus Recreation Center. Sloane was able, with doctor supervision, to come off the Metformin medication within a year or so post-diagnosis, and his A1C levels have been in the normal range since then.

Fast forward to June 2022, when Sloane finished a marathon in Brazil that officially completed his seven continents seven marathons global challenge. He notes that working up to a complete lifestyle change — from inactivity to racing across continents — started by taking baby steps. These baby steps then morphed into an unstoppable snowball: Once one good choice was made, it encouraged another good choice, and so on.

“After a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis, I think the key is to change gradually and not to suddenly change your behaviors as such strategies rarely persist,” Sloane said. “Expect that you will, at times, stray from your new habits. Don’t beat yourself up over slip-ups, and get back on the horse.”

Read more about Sloane’s journey here.

Michl Ava Headshot 300x300Ava Michl Crash course in diabetes

Ava Michl was traversing her new collegiate world through freshman year at UAB when she was rocked by an unexpected Type 1 diabetes diagnosis.

“I spent three days at Children’s of Alabama to get my blood sugar under control,” Michl said. “It was an odd experience — I could literally see my dorm room window from my hospital room window.”

What many others’ bodies do naturally without having to think about — regulating blood sugar — Michl was now on the hook for managing for herself. For her, it felt like a balancing act that required a lot of attention each day: It was not something that could be ignored. She learned that diabetes could take a lot out of someone, and not everyone understands the burden and burnout that accompanies the diagnosis.

To combat diabetes burnout, Michl joined the College Diabetes Network. Her diabetes is easier to manage with the support of college peers in a similar situation. Michl conquered her undergraduate career at UAB and graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience. Now, Michl is a full-time diabetes researcher in the UAB Comprehensive Diabetes Center while pursuing her doctorate in biomedical sciences.

Michl plans to continue her diabetes research because of the hope it brings not only her, but everyone who is affected by diabetes.

“A hundred years ago, Type 1 diabetes was a death sentence,” Michl said. “We have come a long way since, and the life expectancy gap between people with and without Type 1 diabetes is improving. I am proud of UAB’s diabetes research, and I hope we are able to continue innovating and forging the path to a better life for all people affected by diabetes.”

Read more about Michl’s journey here.

Walsh Carolyn 300x300Carolyn WalshEvery day is Diabetes Awareness Month

Carolyn Walsh was traveling on Interstate 459 when she began to feel “off.” She was fighting to stay awake at the wheel, noticing bouts of drowsiness on and off. Before she could pull over, Walsh was in a car accident. Besides a scare, all parties involved were OK.

The accident was a wake-up call. Walsh sought answers to her dangerous drowsiness and received a surprise diagnosis by her general physician: Type 2 diabetes. She began medication but had difficulty managing her disease. She finally visited an endocrinologist, who put her on insulin injections immediately, which she notes was the best thing she ever did for her health.  

However, Walsh found herself at UAB Hospital-Highlands a few years later when she woke up feeling nauseated, fatigued, panting and weak. The team at Highlands quickly recognized that Walsh was facing a potential deadly condition that required immediate treatment: diabetic ketoacidosis. Her cells were not converting blood sugar into energy, so her liver began to break down fat for fuel. A UAB endocrinologist was able to provide a personalized diagnosis: latent autoimmune diabetes in adults, not Type 2 as she originally thought.  

“Seeing someone who specializes in your specific condition is a smart step in managing your health,” Walsh said. “Having a specialist provide me with the specific latent autoimmune diabetes was a game-changer in taking care of myself.”

In 2017, Walsh started receiving nutrition counseling from UAB Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism and Comprehensive Diabetes Center member Amy Warriner, M.D., which she notes was a big step forward in her journey with diabetes.

Now, Walsh, communications director for the UAB Department of Medicine, feels that she is at a manageable place in her disease with her care team’s help. For Walsh, working for an institution that is on the forefront of diabetes research and treatment means something personal.

The UAB Comprehensive Diabetes Center is a University-Wide Interdisciplinary Research Center composed of over 200 faculty members from 10 different schools and many departments. It also serves as the umbrella for various research programs and awards, including the prestigious P30 Diabetes Research Center, U01 Human Islet Research Network grants from the National Institutes of Health and several research core facilities.

“My connection is very personal. I received lifesaving care here at UAB, and the follow-up transformed how I live with diabetes,” Walsh said. “And, at every step of the way, people have been rooting for me to be healthy. When I show up in clinic and in the nutrition counseling sessions, they behave like a community of support for me. Absolutely, I’ve got skin in this game, and they do too. I hope we win the fight together.”

Read more of Walsh’s journey here.