Women Living (And Thriving) with Autoimmune Diseases

Type 1 Diabetes doesn’t stop Michelle Peterson from a leading a fulfilling life with family and as director of communications and PR at Virginia Mason Medical Center.Michelle Peterson, a mother, vegan cook and director of communications and public relations at Virginia Mason Medical Center

Managing an autoimmune disease (AD) is a daily, lifelong commitment, but it doesn’t have to get in the way of the rest of your life. Women make up 75% of Americans living with AD, and they’re finding ways to achieve their professional ambitions while also running their households and finding meaningful ways to connect with their communities. Not to mention taking care of themselves.

We recently talked with Michelle Peterson, a mother, vegan cook and director of communications and public relations at Virginia Mason Medical Center, for some insight and advice on balancing it all while living with Type 1 Diabetes (T1D). People with this disease – about one million Americans – have to closely monitor their blood sugar level, give themselves insulin, primarily through syringes, insulin pens and insulin pumps, and pay careful attention to their exercise and nutrition.

Michelle was diagnosed with T1D when she was 9 years old, just a couple years after her older brother was diagnosed. She has been living with the condition for more than 40 years, and has recently become a strong advocate in the fight against diabetes and other autoimmune diseases.

Tell us about your diabetes. Has it been difficult to manage throughout your professional life?

I’ve never felt like it’s impeded my progress. I’ve had times where I know my blood sugar is getting low in a meeting – it can impact my ability to talk – but I haven’t had a lot of that. There was one time in my whole career where I had an [insulin] pump issue, passed out and had to go to the emergency room. It was one of the most embarrassing moments! But I’ve had very few times where I’ve gotten up in the morning and thought, “I just can’t do this today.” I pride myself on pushing through.

Did your condition factor into your decision to become a mother?

Earlier on I thought, “I can’t have kids.” My brother died when he was 30 as a result of complications from diabetes. I saw that, and I said to my husband, “I can’t have kids, I’m not going to do anything like that because I need to be around to take care of my kids.” I was also worried that they would develop diabetes.

Eventually we tried to adopt, and it fell through. I finally went to my doctor and I said, “What would you say if I told you I wanted to have a baby?” He smiled at me and said, “I was waiting for you to come to that conclusion.” He referred me to an OB/GYN who had worked with a lot of patients who had diabetes, and after meeting with her she told me, “You’re the perfect candidate to have a baby.” So I did, three times.

When I had that first baby, I was so wrapped up in caring for him that I had to remember, “I have to take care of myself, I’ve got to do a blood test, I’ve got to eat something.” It’s one more thing to juggle. It took time to get used to, but your life is kind of turned upside down anyway. You just have to get used to a pattern and figure it out as you go.

What’s the hardest part about managing your Type 1 Diabetes?

It can be unpredictable. You can do something one day and your blood sugar levels are perfect, and you do the same thing the next day and they’re all over the board. That part is frustrating. Sometimes there’s just no rhyme or reason to what’s going on.

You recently started an Instagram account. What’s it like to talk about your disease publicly?T1DVeganMama Instagram

I just made the decision that it didn’t hurt to talk about it, but that it could help to educate people. The Instagram was my daughter’s idea, she even came up with the name, t1dveganmama, and set it up for me. It’s been really fun and surprising. The most rewarding thing is that I read people’s posts, and it’s that feeling of, “I’m not the only person who feels this way.” It’s a community. It’s so supportive and it’s the nicest people from all over the world.

What should other women know about living with Type 1 Diabetes?

It’s about trying to keep everything under control – your life, your job your blood sugar – but not beating yourself up over it. There are going to be times when the unexplainable things happen, but there will also be times when you go out with your friends, and maybe you eat more carbs, and think to yourself, “Oh, I shouldn’t be doing this.” But you just can’t beat yourself up, or you’d be doing it all the time.

Having T1D doesn’t limit what you can do. You can have kids, you can have a busy job, you can travel, you can do whatever you want. You just have to pay attention to what you’re eating, what your blood sugar levels are, and your activity. It’s an extra layer of things you have to think about.

I recommend that people find a “dia-buddy,” or something like Instagram, and build their community. Also, it’s not always going to go the way you think it should. Every day is going to be a little different.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.


This post is part of a series dedicated to women with autoimmune diseases who are leading successful and meaningful lives.

Living With A Disease

March 8, 2018

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