Last year Dr. Ann Albright was the closing speaker at Diabetes Sister’s “Weekend for Women.” Albright is the director of the Division of Diabetes Translation at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Albright formerly served as the chief of the California Diabetes Program for the California Department of Health Services, president of the American Diabetes Association’s Health Care and Education and senior health policy advisor to the U.S. Surgeon General.
Impressive? Yes, but the reason I wanted to interview Dr. Albright is because she lives with diabetes, and I saw her dance. While on the conference stage talking about strength, music and diabetes, she shimmied with the music and inspired 100 women with diabetes to shimmy along with her.
This is part one of a two-part conversation with Dr. Albright and the 16th in my series on diabetes change leaders.
Q: You lead a team of more than 100 people working to eliminate diabetes through “translation.” What does that mean?
Ann Albright: Our mission is to create a world free of the devastation of diabetes. Our efforts are to turn the research we gather into public programs and policies to do that. My division has three goals: to prevent Type 2 diabetes, to reduce the burden of diabetes on those who live with it and to help eliminate ethnic, racial and economic barriers.
The research we do is both surveillance and translation. That means all the statistics you read about diabetes come from the CDC. Then we take the research, and with funding from agencies like National Institutes of Health (NIH) and partnerships with state diabetes prevention and control groups and public health programs across the U.S. create practical programs that work in the real world, particularly for the populations hardest hit by this disease. Our policy work is about scaling and making a program sustainable.
Q: Can you give me an example of creating such a program?
Ann Albright: The recent national diabetes prevention program. From end to end we worked to assure quality, reimbursement, sustainability and also, frankly, that people show up and continue to show up. We trained people to deliver the program, looked at ways to expand and scale the program and brought the third-party reimbursement payer to the table. That’s an example of translating the science into a fully functional program.
Q: That must be very satisfying.
Ann Albright: This work is at my core. I was trained as a basic researcher doing work at the molecular, cellular level, then moved into clinical work and got credentials as both an exercise physiologist and nutritionist. Now I’ve been in public health and public policy for more than 15 years, and it’s an absolute joy.
Public health is all about finding big solutions to big problems to have the biggest impact on the most people. And, knowing it’s not going to happen overnight.
In public health you see how people’s health is challenged by everything – from what individuals do to what goes on in the community, to people’s physical environments, to what policies exist that help or undermine their health.
Q: What makes you want to get up every day and take on such enormous challenges?
Ann Albright: Working on very tangible things that people with diabetes will experience and benefit from is incredibly rewarding because I know personally what the challenges of living with diabetes are.
I find it exciting to be working in such a high-needs area. We get to implement what we know works and get it into people’s hands. We get the chance to try and prevent people from ever getting Type 2 diabetes. I think if you don’t it’s beyond unethical.
I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when I was 9 and I tried not to go into diabetes. I thought I live this, I volunteer, do I really want to work in this area? But pretty early on in my career it was clear to me that you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.
When I got diabetes there weren’t meters or insulin pumps. We had no notion how to prevent Type 2 diabetes. Now we’re working to help people get access to those meters and supplies and we’re delivering self-management training so people can learn how to live with this disease.
Q: Does it get to you having diabetes and working in diabetes?
Ann Albright: Yes, it gets to me. But what really gets to me is when something else rears up and disrupts your life and you still have to be attentive to your diabetes. That can be really hard.
I was widowed at the age of 42 — my husband died 11 years ago. The last thing I wanted to do while I was caring for him dealing with cancer was have to worry about my diabetes. Here’s a man who’d just undergone massive surgery to remove a large tumor that ultimately took his life and the first thing he did when he came out from under anesthetic was ask the nurse if I was OK.
That’s one of the hardest things for me, to make my family worry. Of course you wish you didn’t have this burden for yourself, but it’s also a burden for your loved ones. Those people in your life who are there to support you are also living with this disease, and they worry that this can take your limbs prematurely and your heart and your kidney.
I can deal with paying attention to what I’m eating and poking my finger multiple times a day. My challenge is to not have other people worry.
Q: That reminds me of the comedian Rodney Dangerfield. He would say, “Diabetes gets no respect!”
Ann Albright: We definitely are the Rodney Dangerfield of diseases! That’s one of the biggest downsides and challenges that diabetes faces. People at large don’t understand diabetes. That if things don’t go well this is a very nasty disease. It chips away at people, particularly if people don’t have access to tools.
Many patients are scared and frustrated by the demands of this disease, and so don’t want to look at it. They don’t see the amputees in hospitals or people in a dialysis unit and they don’t get that it was diabetes that put them there.
It’s easy for the general public to think we’re not doing what we’re supposed to to take care of ourselves, and for some of us that’s true. But many of us are working very hard.
I remember having to go to the hospital for something un-diabetes related and telling my husband, “If anybody makes a negative statement about my diabetes you have my permission to knock them down.”
Most of all, we need to get people with diabetes to understand that it takes effort to manage it but the alternative can be devastating. We need to get people with diabetes, and the public, to understand that diabetes is a day-to-day adventure and that you have to be able to manage that newness each day.
Stay tuned for part two of my talk with Dr. Albright, where she talks about the challenges we as patients face and the influence of society.
Originally published on Huffington Post.