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Asking for Help Was My Biggest Challenge My First Semester at Harvard with Type 1 Diabetes

-Rafael Trevino

My mother called me shortly after I began my first year at Harvard; I assumed that it was to see how my first week at school had gone. Instead, it was to yell at me because she could see remotely that my blood sugar had been hovering around 250 mg/dL for five hours. It would be one of the many surprises I faced my first semester of school away from home.

Endocrinologist Dr. Jamie Redgrave, who works at Harvard University Health Services (HUHS), says that managing diabetes is like a “fifth class” in one’s semester workload. I have found this an accurate description of my first semester here with type 1 diabetes. Initially, my blood sugar levels were harder to manage with all of the classwork and other time commitments, and this in turn negatively impacted my test-taking performance.

Initially, I found it hard to work up the courage to ask for accommodations. My pride told me that I didn’t want the ability to pause a test to treat a low or a high. I worried that if I scored as well as my peers I would attribute that to this “advantage” I was given. However, once I realized how drastically fluctuating glucose can affect brain function, I began to understand that getting accommodations is not seeking an advantage, but rather a way to level the playing field for people with diabetes.

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And it’s not like accomodation makes everything “easy”. During my first economics midterm, I found that my blood sugar was high enough that even using all the time I’m allowed to pause the test would not have helped. I still had to do the hard work, both in classes and in my blood sugar management.

There are few professors here who understand what having high or low blood sugars can do to brain processing, and gaining accommodations through Harvard’s Accessibility Education Office (AEO) was a laborious process. After my first round of midterms, I had to have my doctor write a letter specifically stating that if my blood sugar was above a certain number, I should be allowed to pause the test or take the test again.

But making this connection between diabetes management and academic test results has actually made handling diabetes easier throughout the school year. Once I realized that I could show my knowledge better by keeping my numbers in range, I also became more motivated to do well in my “fifth class”. This then led to much better results for my second round of midterms and finals.

It’s a virtuous cycle, and I’m proud to say that I have finished on an upward trend, both in my test scores and my management.

A reminder: The College Diabetes Network provides resources for students with type 1 diabetes, including their Off to College guide. You can access all the resources here

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