Call to Congress

More than 200 Diabetes Advocates from across the nation are gathering in Washington, DC today in preparation to storm Capitol Hill tomorrow and ask Congress to help Stop Diabetes® by educating representatives about the need to fund diabetes research and prevention. Among these advocates is Gina Galvak who has been volunteering with the American Diabetes Association as an advocate since 2004.

While Gina and other advocates will be participating in face-to-face meetings with Members of Congress tomorrow, advocates from across the nation will have the chance to call in to their representatives. I’ll post more about that tomorrow, but I thought it would be nice to hear what an experienced advocate has to say about talking with Members of Congress and their staff, so I caught up with Gina to see what she plans to talk about during Call to Congress.

Let’s start at the beginning. What’s your diagnosis story?

I was diagnosed 30 years ago (at the age of 10) with type 1 diabetes two weeks before Halloween.  I grew up in the “you can’t eat that” era. “That” always referred to things like regular pop, cookies, cake, candy, etc.   Today the focus is on healthy meal planning, serving sizes and carbohydrate counting.

Good point – a lot has changed in diabetes management over the past 30 years. What else stands out in your mind that’s changed since you were diagnosed?

When I was diagnosed, we didn’t have glucose meters to check blood glucose levels. Instead, I had a urine chemistry set. I remember adding drops of urine, drops of water and a Clinitest tablet into a test tube and waiting five minutes for the solution to change color. The resulting color was compared to a chart to see how much sugar was in my urine.  Not very practical or accurate – this didn’t provide me with real-time numbers of how my blood glucose was at that time, but instead how it was hours earlier. The first blood glucose meters were very large and took almost a full minute to get a result, but at least they were providing me with more accurate, useful information by telling me how my glucose levels were at that time. Now we have meters that provide blood sugar results in five seconds and require a smaller drop of blood.

When I was diagnosed, then into my teens, I remember overhearing the doctor telling my mom that I would never be able to have children, that it would be too dangerous. Through research it was discovered how women with diabetes could have healthy pregnancies and babies with intensified diabetes management.

The American Diabetes Association played a major role in advocating for federal funding that supported research which resulted in these advances in diabetes management and technology. It is because of these advances that I am healthy and do not have any diabetes complications.  It is because of research that I am the mother of two beautiful, healthy children.

Nice! I’m so glad to hear that!  Besides being a mother, what do you do now?

I am fortunate to hold two positions that allow me to help improve and save people’s lives. One is at Lakewood Hospital (a Cleveland Clinic hospital) where I am the Program Development Coordinator and community outreach nurse for the Diabetes and Endocrine Center.   I am also an Emergency Department nurse at MetroHealth Medical Center.  Unlike my other career, which provides much opportunity to act proactively, emergency nursing is mostly reactive.

In both of these capacities,  it is heartbreaking and frustrating to see the obstacles to treatment and complications that people with diabetes suffer as a result of not having access and/or adequate coverage of diabetes needs.  I am thankful that both employers are supportive of my efforts with the American Diabetes Association and for the opportunities that have come about as a result of my employment and my volunteer work with the Association.

Diabetes is obviously something that impacts your life, both personally and professionally. How do you think that has an effect on what you will say in your meetings with Members of Congress during Call to Congress?

My experiences, and the experiences of people I’ve cared for in my nursing career will allow me to provide the human side of diabetes.   Often times, when talking about diabetes, my mind is flooded with stories of people I’ve met over the years.  I use these stories to put a face, and a voice, on diabetes.  I believe the power of these stories, including my own story, is the most effective way to leave an impression on people.  My hope is when Members of Congress hear the word diabetes, they will immediately remember these inspiring, heart touching stories.

What are you most excited about when it comes to advocating for the diabetes community?

It’s a tie between the endless possibilities and opportunities to bring about change, and getting others involved and excited about advocacy. I’m excited about both of these aspects!

Do you ever get nervous talking to Members of Congress and their staff on Capitol Hill?

Sure, everyone gets nervous from time to time!  When I feel the nerves kicking in, I try to channel them into positive energy. It helps me to focus by reminding myself that Members of Congress and their staff are people and speaking with them is a great opportunity to help educate them about diabetes.   I take a deep breath, then speak from the heart about how diabetes affects me and others I know or have taken care of.  One way or another, everything falls into place and the nerves go away. I know there will be some people who don’t agree with my values, so this is especially helpful when I know the person I will be meeting with does not support my position.

Do you have any stories about advocacy efforts that you’d like to share?

It’s incredibly important to remember that ANYONE can be an advocate, you do not have to have any special credentials or degrees, you don’t need to understand politics, you just need to be willing to speak up and share your diabetes story with others.  I certainly started from square one – when I started doing advocacy work with the American Diabetes Association in 2004, I was lucky that I knew that the nation had a President, a House of Representatives and a Senate (and at the state level, I was lucky to know we had a Governor, House and Senate), but that was honestly about all I knew.

I look back at my advocacy journey and all the things I have learned along the way, all the people I have met, and all the opportunities I have had to advocate for people with diabetes.  I always stop and smile, because if there’s one thing that has made all the interactions successful, it’s my story.  That’s what Members of Congress, their staff and others want to hear: the human story, the reality of life with diabetes.  That’s what touches them and what they remember.  So anyone with a story can be a diabetes advocate.

If you could say one thing about diabetes, what would it be?

No one should ever have to face diabetes alone.  Surround yourself with people (family, friends, co-workers, etc) and opportunities that provide support, encouragement and motivation.  People who provide a shoulder to lean on when things are difficult and you feel like giving up, and that are there to celebrate your successes, hopes and dreams.   I am incredibly lucky to have this support from my family and friends…and many, many of these friends are the staff and volunteers that I have met through the American Diabetes Association.  To all these people, thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the ways you have touched my life.  Together we will Stop Diabetes.

A big thanks to Gina for taking a stand against diabetes by sharing her story in Washington, DC – and now you can share your story, too!  Be sure to participate in Call into Congress tomorrow and share your story with your Members of Congress!

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