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Ryan Reed and T1D, Both Share the Seat but Only One Drives

Tom Karlya and Ryan ReedHere I am with Ryan Reed and his race car. He was even more impressive in person.I recently had the honor of meeting NASCAR race driver Ryan Reed. It was amazing to be invited into his inner circle and witness what goes on behind the scenes at Daytona.

As I prepare for our meeting I also very aware that Ryan is sponsored by Lilly Diabetes. I’m not an investigative reporter but as a writer I know that I must ask him about all of the brouhaha over the cost of insulin. It’s a serious subject. One that's on the minds of many who live with diabetes. So, surely this is a fair question...  

Its early July when I arrive at the Daytona Speedway. Few race tracks are as well known. The atmosphere was exhilirating. The crowds were flowing in. Flags were flapping in the wind. For me, the feeling is comparable to when you're about to watch the biggest block buster movie of the season and you've managed to grab the exact seat you want in the movie theatre. When the most-incredible-opening-music ever starts, your heart begins to pound...

Multiply that feeling by about a thousand and that's what it's like before a NASCAR race begins.

My credentials get me past every guard—and I feet like a kid in a candy shop. When I finally arrive at Ryan's trailer, I see Ryan up ahead walking in a different direction. His walk is different and I realize what I'm seeing is a confident stride. Unlike the walk I witnessed l when I met him for the first time 2 years ago, this is the walk of NASCAR Driver Number 16. As I marvel over the transformation, a young boy confronts Ryan. 

“Mr. Reed! Mr. Reed!” the boy says with excitement. 

Mister? I smile at this. Ryan is all of 23. But is clearly now receiving the respect of all NASCAR Drivers. Ryan turns toward the young man and stoops to give him his autograph.

“You're my hero Mr. Reed,” the boy says showing the young star his insulin pump.“I want to be like you when I grow up.”

Ryan lowers down on one knee and takes his time chatting with his young fan.The boys' father interupts their conversation for a photo. I can tell by the smile on the boy’s face what was discussed. Ryan told him there's little difference between the two of them.

Since his T1D diagnosis, Ryan's life has changed of course but his championship character has not. Ryan knows he is an inspiration to many people. He sees that many regard him as a hero and humbly works to live up to their expectations.  

The meeting I observed is likely one that the young boy will remember for a lifetime. This story is not going to be about insulin (though we'll get to that). Instead, the real story here is the tale of a young man with a dream that he didn't allow diabetes to steal from him. 

A Diagnosis and a Dream 

Ryan Reed driving in DaytonaRyan Reed, NASCAR #16, drives his race car around the track in Daytona.

In spite of the destiny diabetes gave him, Ryan Reed found a way to overcome the considerable challenges of his disease and get behind the wheel of car number 16. He shared his story with me:

I was 17 and in the process of moving to North Carolina where you can really make a name for yourself in racing. I had had a real tough couple of weeks where I was not myself—very thirsty and lethargic. My parents said I looked awful. So I went to the doctor the next day and received my diagnosis.

At the time I was caught up in chasing my dream of being a NASCAR driver so what I cared most about was how the diagnosis would impact my driving. The doctor told me I'd never race again. He said I'd have to get used to living a normal life. Normal? THAT was the toughest part of my diagnosis.To be told that I could not pursue my dream was devastating.

The needles were scary; the complications were serious but all of that paled in comparison to my desire to do what I love to do—race.

Recalling those memories stirred up emotion in Ryan. As he continued sharing his story, it dawned on me that in 2010 patients were still being told that diabetes could stop them. He continued...

I trusted my doctor. I had to, I had no knowledge of diabetes. But I needed to understand what the actual boundaries were.I started to think about the reasons holding me back. The news was especially devastating to my mom. I was upset of course but for different reasons. To understand my disease. I set out on the Internet and researched the heck out of it. A few days later I came to understand that there was nothing I did to get type 1 and that was a relief. But the words I kept dwelling on were the ones my doctor spoke—’You will never race again’.

At the time of his diagnosis, Ryan was only 17. I couldn't help but be impressed at the strength of his conviction. He seemed to grasp that managing his type 1 was going to be difficult but still couldn't shake the belief that he was done with racing.

A big breakthrough for me came when I googled, 'Athletes with Type 1 Diabetes’. I saw several  names I recognized—Gary Hall, Kris Freeman, Jay Cutler, Charlie Kimball. In connection with those names another name kept coming up...Dr. Anne Peters. She cared for a few of these athletes and her practice was only about 90 minutes away. I thought she might understand my dilemma.

When my story was relayed to Dr. Peters by the office manager making my appointment, she came immediately to the phone. I couldn't believe it. I mean she hadn't even met me yet! In her office a little while later, she asked me how badly I wanted to race. I answered without hesitation that it was all I wanted to do.  

Up to this point, Ryan had been in control of much of his life—how fast he drove; what he needed to make happen to be at the top of the game and many other details necessary to succeed in such a competitive field. But now diabetes was banging on the door and trying its hardest to slam it shut. Thankfully, a doctor named Anne Peters arrived on the scene.

Ryan quoting Dr. Peters: 
"If you listen to me, we will make this happen." It was as simple as that.  It was not drawn out. She made me feel within the first five minutes that we would make this happen.

That's when everything changed for Ryan. Dr. Peters would help him handle his diabetes out in the real world as well as the challenges inside his race car. She told him how to handle losing an average of five pounds every race; how to keep his blood sugars slightly elevated to get through the race safely; how to balance the stress witha race day diet designed to  compensate for his adrenaline being in high gear prior to the star of racing at such high speeds.

There is diabetes, and then there is diabetes at almost 200 miles per hour and although not the same, Dr. Peters promised Ryan that if he listened, he would be on the track again; in both worlds.

Ryan did listen to what the doctor had to say. They were a good team and it helped him accomplish what he wanted. 

My diagnosis made me grow up and act differently. When you learn how to do the things you do not like to do because you have to; that is what you need to do to be successful. I used that to propel me to this level.

Gary Hall was told that he would never swim again; and he ended up winning more medals after diagnosis than before; Ryan Reed was told that he would never race again and here he stands already having two NASCAR wins after diagnosis and he is just getting started. Ryan says that that no matter what a person longs to do—drive a race car, play baseball, or just hang out with your buddies—it comes down to managing your diabetes.

Work with your doctor to help you open the doors. You can do it all. Of course I have days where I feel diabetes isn't fair and managing my blood sugar is a burden but it's part of my life and that won't change. So I take care of it. That’s monumental in my mindset.  

And his mindset is a good mindset. He’s focused. He inspires. He's a mature 23-year-old who has learned a lot but knows he has a lot more to learn. 

You can't afford to make a lot of mistakes at 197 miles per hour, Ryan Reed knows that and accepts that, too. And with his focus on the checkered flag, he is ready each and every time that voice announces, “Racers, start your engines.”

I am a DiabetesDad.

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