“Jack!” the room yelled. “Hi everyone, thanks for coming!” I replied with the same excitement. The room was full of type one diabetes just like me, wanting to contribute to our monthly support group. We talked about everything from blood sugar checks, to insulin, to school, and to family and friends.
However, this was not your average support group. In fact, the room of diabetics that I mentioned above was on the receiving end of a Skype video conference, half a world away in northern India.
That’s right, a St. Louis teen and his family, sitting in their living room, were talking to diabetic children and their families from Haridwar, a prominent city in India known as one of the most sacred sites in the Hindu religion.
All I had to do was plug in the Ethernet cable, set up the webcam, click a couple of buttons, and then a room full of smiles graced the computer screen. “Namaste!” they all exclaimed, a customary Indian greeting. And then, with smiles of our own, my family and I returned the greeting.
The support group idea came about after my former diabetes physician and her husband, Dr. Santosh and Dr. Jitendra Gupta, retired and decided to devote themselves to the impoverished diabetics of India. Their foundation, Manav Seva (www.manavseva.org) aims to provide diabetes and heart care to the impoverished of India.
A support group gives diabetics the tools to be healthy. To talk with another diabetic is crucial in gaining advice and information. For these diabetics in India, a support group gives them encouragement to be healthy despite their cultural challenges.
They have worked wonders. Santosh and Jitendra Gupta have revolutionized a local clinic in Haridwar. People come from all over to the clinic, called Rama Krishna Mission Hospital. Because the average income of a diabetic in Haridwar equates to only $22 a month, Drs. Gupta provide insulin, blood sugar kits, and other supplies that the people would otherwise not be able to afford.
Many of the diabetics also have complications. Despite these challenges, Drs. Gupta have brought the average A1c (the diabetic “report card”) of the town down from above 10% to 8.2%. That is a considerable accomplishment considering that some of her patients must choose between food and insulin.
The support groups started earlier this year in conjunction with an international pen-pal program I founded, called Pen-Pals United, which connects a young American diabetic with a young Indian diabetic via letter writing. After writing letters with a diabetic girl named Surbhi for several years, I wanted to give the same opportunity to more diabetic kids. Now, Surbhi actually translates the letters as part of Pen-Pals United.
So, as part of this support group, my family, friend, and I fielded questions from the room full of diabetic children and their families.
From a previous support group, I told the children that they did not need to be ashamed about diabetes. Despite the unfortunate situation of diabetics being looked down upon in India as defective, I told them that they are in no way defective. They are normal, but just have to take extra steps to be healthy.
I also emphasized that the children and I have a special connection, type one diabetes, and that we are very similar.
However, the first question came from a young girl named Khyati, who wanted to know how I could say that we are similar even though we look different. “How can you say we are the same, Jack?” the translator uttered for her.
That’s a tough question, especially coming from a cute young girl. “Khyati, even though we look different on the outside, we are the same on the inside. We both have diabetes,” I replied.
She smiled, and I smiled back.
The questions kept coming. Prashant asked about my school, , and my best friend, Alex. Another boy, Umang, asked about playing sports with diabetes and about eating out with friends.
One of the last questions came from Tanya, a teenage girl. “Do you ever become angry about diabetes?” the translator asked for her. “Yes,” I replied, adding, “but you can’t be angry and also be healthy. If you get angry, you let diabetes win. But if you have a positive outlook, you tell diabetes that you are better than it.”
She smiled, and I smiled back.
(You can view Tanya's question as a video in this page's media section.)
The last question came from Krishna, who moved all the way from Nepal to Haridwar for better diabetes treatment with Dr. Gupta. “Will diabetes interfere with higher education?,” the translator asked for him. “Absolutely not. I will be going to college next summer. If you continue to check your blood sugar, count carbs, and give insulin, then you can be successful,” I replied.
He smiled, and I smiled back.
Then the questions came from the families, whose questions mainly centered on why they need to be involved in their child’s diabetes. My parents and grandparents emphasized that diabetes is a family disease, and that it takes mother, father, brother, and others to help the child with food, supplies, and emotional support.
Traditionally, Indian families do not see the need to help their diabetic child. They are sometimes viewed as a liability. However, Dr. Gupta said that, after the support group, the parents will be much more willing to come to her diabetes education meetings.
After speaking with the hospital manager, who is also diabetic, and after the presentation of awards, it was time to say goodbye. Quite frankly, I did not want to say goodbye. This support group is hands-down the highlight of each month for me.
(You can view the awards ceremony in this page's media section. The awards were presented to those who actively take care of their diabetes.)
Not only did the children love the event, but the media did also. The local news outlets in Haridwar and nationally in India featured the support group on TV and in different newspapers.
I cannot wait to see the children next month. Hopefully the support group will grow and more smiles will fill that room. Interestingly, a smile is one of those things that does not need to be translated.
What I learned from this support group, besides talking about diabetes issues, is that one does not need an expensive plane ticket to make an impact. All you need is a good internet connection, a computer, and a webcam.
It is just amazing to think that my family and I were sitting in our living room connected to a small room half way across the world, talking to diabetics just like me.
India isn’t as far away as you think.
(You can contact Jack for more information/questions at email@example.com)