It is my pleasure and honor today to introduce you to Delia Whitfield, Senior Outreach Manager of the Chesapeake and Potomac chapter of JDRF. She’s also Outreach Captian for the entire Mid-Atlantic region and Florida too, working with a large number of outreach staff. She’s a major part of getting the D.C.-area JDRF Research Summit off the ground every year. Her role is an important one, and it covers a huge population and geographic area. Did I mention that she’s also living with Type 1 Diabetes? On top of that, she’s one of the most positive people you’ll ever meet. It’s just impossible to walk away from a conversation with Delia without feeling better. I think her story is a good one, and it provides an example for others who might be thinking about making a career in the diabetes world.
I was able to chat with Delia by phone recently, and this is part of what we covered.
Delia… anything you want to tell us about your diagnosis?
I was diagnosed when I was 21 and about to graduate college. I had all of the typical symptoms leading up to my diagnosis: thirsty, tired, and hungry. I was losing a lot of weight to the point that people were concerned and asking me if I was eating enough. One of those people was my roommate, who I vividly remember in the few weeks leading up to my diagnosis, was giving me funny looks every time I would make my regular late-night runs to the grocery store for more OJ and snacks! The final straw was when I went with some friends to a concert and had trouble seeing the band clearly. We were in the second row. The next day, I called to schedule an appointment with an eye doctor. It was a Friday and I remember telling the woman that I couldn’t go all weekend without seeing well. They squeezed me in that afternoon. At the appointment, I told them about how I had been feeling and that I was worried. They changed my prescription and sent me on my way. As I left the appointment, I called my mom, who had worked in the healthcare field for a long time. I had been telling my mom and my dad about some of my symptoms here and there, but I told her about all of them on that call and I think it hit her. She told me to go immediately the urgent care and get a finger-stick to check my glucose. I didn’t know what a “finger-stick” was, but I heard the urgency in her voice. I drove straight to the doctor’s office. It was there that I learned my glucose was over 600. They sent me immediately to the ER.
At this point, I knew it was somewhat serious. But, still, I was young and what I really wanted was to get in and out of the ER so I could still go out with my friends that evening. I hadn’t yet realized that not only did I have type 1 diabetes, but missing one night out with my friends was the least of my concerns.
So… you graduated college, and you originally went to work in the real estate industry. What eventually led you to JDRF?
After my diagnosis, I went through a pretty tough time adjusting and coming to grips with this “new normal.” I was angry. I was confused. I was scared. I was isolated. After months of my parents urging me, I finally went to a diabetes support group. I sat down and immediately realized that I not only was the only person under the age of 50, but I was also the only one with type 1 diabetes. One woman turned to me and told me that I was “lucky” because I was young enough to start eating healthy and exercising and reverse my diabetes. I left in tears, feeling worse than I felt before. If only I had “that kind,” I thought.
Thankfully, a few months later, I heard about this organization called JDRF that was dedicated to type 1 diabetes. It blew my mind that there was an ENTIRE organization dedicated to “my kind” of diabetes. I signed up to volunteer with my local JDRF chapter – the Coastal Carolina Branch (Wilmington, NC). I started going to events and helping out where I could. The chapter staff and other volunteers were awesome; I was hooked. Getting connected with the type 1 diabetes community was the single best thing that had happened to me since my diagnosis. It led me to accept my diagnosis and more importantly, it gave me hope.
Around this same time, my parents met Tom Brobson (JDRF’s National Director of Research Investment Opportunities) at a JDRF event. My mom asked him if he would be willing to talk to me since he was also diagnosed as an adult and was so knowledgeable on all things type 1. When we talked, he told me all about his personal experience with type 1 and what he does for JDRF. It was fascinating and I knew I wanted to work for JDRF. At the time, I was going back to school to pursue a nursing degree, so I just kept looking for opportunities to open up. A few months later, an outreach coordinator position opened up with the Capitol Chapter in D.C. And the rest is history.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about pursuing a career as well as managing their diabetes?
If someone is interested in a career in the diabetes field or specifically with JDRF, I would say start by volunteering. Volunteering allows you to figure out what you enjoy doing, engage and help people in the community who you can help, but it will also in turn help you. Getting connected with this community was the biggest game-changer for me not only in terms of management, but for me emotionally. Type 1 requires 24/7 attention, and takes up a ton of brain space. I didn’t realize how isolated I was when I was trying to do it on my own with no support network. I have learned some of the best tips and tricks about management from others living with T1D. I also have come to realize that for me, the balance of a good sense of humor (and not falling apart over spikes!), and leaning on others when you’re feeling a little discouraged, is huge. The biggest thing is, knowing you’re not alone! There are a number of ways you can get involved to the degree that you’ll probably know whether you’ll want to make a career of it. Everyone has different talents and strengths and I guarantee no matter what yours are, we could probably use them!
You’re Senior Outreach Manager for a big, big chapter. JDRF’s Chesapeake and Potomac chapter covers almost all of Maryland, the District of Columbia, Northern and part of Western Virginia, and a couple of counties in West Virginia. What are some of the challenges you face on a daily basis?
I think it’s making sure that JDRF has a greater presence in the large territory we serve. It’s tough knowing that there’s a large percentage of people in the type 1 diabetes community that don’t know that there are support programs (e.g. JDRF mentor program), resources (free toolkits and care kits for all ages and stages of diagnosis), and free outreach events (JDRF research summit) where they can connect with a community of people just like them. About 6 months ago, I spoke to a young adult that has lived with type 1 for 8 years, and he had never met anyone else with type 1. He didn’t have an endocrinologist and he wasn’t familiar with pumps or CGMs. I connected him with an adult mentor and he wrote me a note saying that it was “life-changing” for him. He now has an endocrinologist and recently started on a CGM! Because we do have such a large territory, we really rely on our awesome volunteers to help us get connected with their community and promote our outreach programs. We pride ourselves on working with a limited marketing budget so that we can reserve those dollars for research and advancing technology – conducting human clinical trials are very costly!
On the flip side, there are a lot of stigmas and misnomers about type 1 diabetes in the general public. Instead of looking at these situations as a challenge though, I’d call them good teachable opportunities. I think a positive spin helps me when I hear the insensitive, uneducated, or just plain ridiculous comments made to people with T1D, myself included! I was once yelled at and asked to get out of a cab because I had just given myself a shot and the cab driver did not accept “drug use” in his cab.
What are your goals for the future?
That I will be out of a job. That all of us working in the T1D community can close our doors because type 1 will be something that “used” to exist.
For me personally, I’ve finished two century rides doing the JDRF Ride for a Cure. I’d like to complete even more and do some other endurance races.
Finally… You were mentioned in Amy Ryan’s book Shot: Staying Alive With Diabetes. What was it like reading about yourself in print?
Amy is a very dear friend and an amazing person. When I first read that chapter, it was like an out of body experience! It was very humbling to read her kind words.
Delia, thanks so much for sharing with us! Your perseverance, your hard work, and your compassion for people living with and affected by type 1 diabetes is an example for all of us. JDRF, and by extension, all of us, are fortunate to have you in our corner.
JDRF could use your help in a variety of ways all year long. To find out more about how you can make a difference, go to JDRF’s volunteer page and learn more: http://jdrf.org/get-involved/volunteer/
Also, and you heard it here first: Next year’s JDRF Research Summit is once again coming to the Washington, D.C. area on March 7, 2015! Look for more on the summit as the year progresses.