Diabetes Is Like Walking Up A Staircase

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Andrew Mika gazes down to examine his tailored white dress shirt. “See look at that—there’s a blood stain!”

These words, unexpected in the upscale Brooklyn Diner in Midtown Manhattan, have become routine to Mika.

He looks up from his shirt. “I had to get it dry-cleaned the other week. I was really, really pissed.”

“Drew” Mika is 27 years old, a tri-state native, workout enthusiast, French toast lover, cautious traveler, cinephile and young adult with type 1 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to attack insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Mika takes an insulin shot before he eats lunch and dinner everyday to counter the effects that the food will have on his blood sugar levels. This is the reason for the bothersome stains.

Mika currently works in finance for a venture start-up, Vesture, run by Nader Naeymi-Rad in Midtown Manhattan and has been there for a year and a half. He is the Director of Finance and Strategy for Nader and spends eleven hours a day structuring sales platforms and growth ideas, running finance systems, sitting through meetings, talking to banks and vendors and working through taxes and bills. He is also the President of the Young Leadership Committee, a branch of JDRF. These groups both work to raise money for diabetes research, but the Young Leadership Committee specifically focuses on young adults ages 22 to 31. JDRF’s goal is to fund advancements in diabetes treatments and preventions and ultimately help find a cure. Mika spends an hour and a half each night after work and three hours on the weekend, unpaid, organizing and planning fundraising events for the Young Leadership Committee.

Since 2014, Mika has raised around $175,000 a year for diabetes research through these fundraising events. Mika strives for seamless integration of his events into the lives of his fundraising participants. His latest event was at Soul Cycle; the committee sold out the 63-person class weeks before the event. One of their biggest events is One Night, a food and beverage tasting with around 500 people normally in attendance. The committee also hosts a couple galas each year with anywhere between 400 and 500 people attending. Mika spearheads the organization of these fundraising events and helps get the word out through friends, family and his peers with diabetes.

Though Drew Mika is successful in most everything he sets his mind to, his success did not come easy. It stemmed from two life-altering events, both of which occurred in 2001.

Mika was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2001 at age eleven. He believes no one should have to self-diagnose the way he did.

“I learned about diabetes in school from a very, very outdated textbook, which is upsetting. Growing up in an upper-middle class suburb, this shouldn’t happen,” says Mika who grew up in Cranford, New Jersey. “I learned about all these symptoms, and I caught myself with the symptoms—frequent urination, extreme thirst, lack of concentration, moodiness. So, [my mom took me to] the doctor, and I had diabetes.”

Misinformed from the outdated textbook, Mika saw this diagnosis as an end.

“I wasn’t informed enough to know that diabetes was livable, that you were able to continue your life,” he says. “I thought I was done.”

Though he wasn’t lacking in “ten-year-old freak outs” over diabetes—he had them—living his life functionally with the disease was just expected.

“I did what they told me to do. There was no question.”

Both of his parents, Andy and Nancy, offered him support when he was diagnosed.

“He was great,” Nancy said. “He just went along with it. He was never rebellious.”

They turned blood checks into a game when Mika was young. He and his two younger brothers, Kenny and Greg, had to guess what Drew’s blood sugar levels were going to be—whoever got closest would win a dollar.

“It becomes a lifelong lifestyle,” his father, Andy, says. He and Nancy taught Mika what to do, how to check his blood, what to eat and how to continue to live his life normally, but doing it was his duty. “We put the responsibility on him.”

Andy is currently the Head of Investment Operations at Oppenheimer Funds and has been there for 17 years. He’s been working on Wall Street for 30 years and worked at various investment companies there before landing his job at Oppenheimer. With Andy’s success, Nancy was able to stop working for her dad’s temporary help company when Drew was born.

“We were fortunate in that we were well off,” says Mika, “Are well off.”

That’s not to say that times were always easy for the Mikas. The second event that changed Drew Mika’s life came on September 11th 2001, shortly after his diagnosis.

Andy worked on the 31st floor of tower two in the World Trade Center in 2001. He watched as the plane hit tower one on September 11th. Mika struggles to tell the story. “That was the best and worst day of my life.”

He was in computer class at the time tower one was hit. “I went to the office. I peeked in the teacher’s lounge, and I saw building two get hit,” he chokes, “I somehow knew that was my dad’s building, and I saw it collapse. Tears.”

And right as that single word leaves his lips, the tears flow.

“This story gets harder to tell every time.” He sniffles faintly, trying to bury the impact this day has had on his life.

His dad was fine. He ran as fast as he could down the stairs when he saw tower one get hit and kept going until he reached the sanctity of his home in New Jersey. He came home covered in dust. But he came home.

It was the best and worst day of Drew Mika’s life. And, he sees that day the same way he sees diabetes.

“With the darkest times comes a ray of light. That’s it.

That’s also diabetes—“Are you going to see it as something that stopped you or something that created you?”

Mika let it create him.

He attended the University of Rhode Island with the intention of studying journalism and becoming a writer. He worked toward a journalism degree and added on an English major, nervous that one degree wouldn’t be enough. After taking a political science class that he loved, he added political science as his third major with hopes he would really stand out. While working toward earning a triple-major degree, Mika focused his general education courses around economics.

“I was just naturally interested in economics,” Mika claims, “That’s where the career in finance came from.”

According to Mika’s good friend, Darell Handler, from the University of Rhode Island, Mika was interested and involved in making contributions to diabetes throughout his time at the university.

“At a time in my life where everyone, including myself, was wrapped up in typical college student issues,” says Darell, “Drew was extraordinarily focused on giving back to a cause that he had been dealing with his entire life.”

After graduating from college and commuting for nearly a year from home in Cranford to his first finance job with Morgan Stanley in New York City, Mika moved to Washington D.C. for a new job in finance with Greystone. At a company party, he was introduced to a man named Bill Lane whose son had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and suggested that Mika get involved with JDRF, which has a large Washington D.C. office.

“I was hesitant at first, but within five hours, I knew,” he says. “I knew this was fascinating. These people were all there for the same cause, and they had absolutely no financial gain from it.”

After moving to New York City in December of 2013, still with Greystone, Mika and a friend who worked two floors below him, Jon Stopol, set out to revamp the Young Leadership Committee of JDRF. They wrote a letter request with a plan to restructure the Young Leadership Committee, give people positions and responsibilities and form a more structured business group. Once approved, they went from raising $60,000 a year with the committee to over $175,000. In 2017, Mika is shooting for $200,000.

Mika brings in inspirational speakers and throws events to raise money. Some of the people who have spoken to the leadership committee include big names in the New York City diabetes community, like Derek Rapp, the CEO of JDRF. He has also brought in Jeff Dachis, the founder of One Drop—a mobile platform for managing diabetes—and Jennifer Ross, a type 1 who founded Be Mixed, a zero-calorie cocktail mixer. The committee also targets as many “diabetes celebrities” as they can to get involved with the Young Leadership Committee and spread word of its cause.

Gretchen Otte, a type 1 diabetes blogger from Costa Mesa, California, sat down with Mika this fall when she visited New York City.

“Andrew wanted to meet to work together on spreading the word of his Young Leadership Committee and their upcoming fundraisers,” she explains, “Since I have a large platform in the type 1 community, he wanted to use me as an influencer.”

Gretchen has more than fifteen thousand followers on her Instagram account titled “typeonetypehappy” which she set up after her diagnosis in 2014. Much more laid-back than Mika, Gretchen was immediately open to any ideas he had to get her followers involved with events going on in New York City.

“He has a goal that he wants to accomplish,” she says, “and he will work as hard as he can to carry that goal across the finish line.”

 Even though he is working eleven hours a day and putting in an additional ten hours a week for diabetes fundraising, Mika is committed to staying in good physical shape. He runs through Central Park, surfs in the warmer months and takes boxing lessons with his brother, Greg, from his trainer once a week.

Mika’s life is calculated. He can eat the same thing everyday and not find it tiresome. He can tell you details of presidential elections years before he was born. He can quote Bob Dylan and Marcus Aurelius. He can work all day, attend philanthropic events at night, squeeze in a workout and start all over again the next morning because he likes to stay busy. But above all, Mika can nonchalantly take a needle, poke it into his stomach, pull it out and dust himself off as if he were taking his daily vitamins.

Joe Birmingham laughs at Mika’s calculated lifestyle, “Drew’s been 45 since he was 18. “Joe-Joe,” as the Mika family knows him, works in construction for Equinox and has been Mika’s best friend since age 13. They still see each other every few weeks as adults, and Joe-Joe agrees that Mika has always been the adult in their relationship.

“With Drew, I never have to worry about him,” Joe-Joe says. “He’s so on top of it. He likes to be in control of things.”

Diabetes is a lifestyle for Mika. The first thing he does when he wakes up at 6:15 in the morning is check his blood sugar. He goes to the gym, checks his blood sugar, comes home and eats eggs. He goes to work, checks his blood sugar, checks his blood sugar again, decides to eat lunch, checks his blood sugar, takes insulin, eats lunch and checks his blood sugar. He checks his blood sugar a couple more times in the afternoon, heads home, takes insulin, eats dinner, checks his blood sugar, takes insulin again and goes to bed.

“Dealing with diabetes is my life.”

Mika has given up a lot of things. He loves breakfast foods. He can’t have cereal. Or pancakes. Or maple syrup. Or French toast.

“My dad makes great French toast.”

He has also lost the liberty that comes with travel.

“I never thought about how dangerous it was traveling abroad with diabetes. Insulin isn’t available as readily in other countries as it is in the U.S. Unfortunately, these things play in my mind a lot now, which is probably hindering my risk-taking in life,” Mika sighs. “I over-pack everything.”

When he was diagnosed, he was told there would be a cure by the time he was 18. Still, there is no cure, but there’s progress.

“If they tell me there’s not going to be a cure, then what hope do I have?” Mika asks, “Life is like walking up a staircase. You may fall down, and there’s a whole bunch of little baby steps you have to take to get to the top of the stairs, but that’s diabetes. I’m looking for a whole bunch of little baby steps.”

And JDRF and Young Leadership Committee are helping to make those baby steps possible. Recently, a device that doses insulin (sometimes referred to as an artificial pancreas) was FDA approved. 

“Technology has improved so much because of what JDRF has done. Life is getting easier, there are less complications, people live longer—overall things are just better,” Mika boasts. “And the confidence I’ve gotten from this, the fulfillment, the chance to be part of something so much bigger than myself—it has helped me grow as a person. It takes me out of everyday life. For someone who is involved in finance or real estate or investing, you can get very caught up in your job. This is something bigger. This is a passion.”

Mika’s friends can see this passion in him.

“Everything he puts his mind to, he does with passion,” Darell says, “He brings one hundred percent effort. At this point, I expect nothing less from him.”

And Mika gives nothing less in anything he does.

His father, Andy, sees how much he cares. “He’s loving,” he shrugs in a loss for words about his son. “He just is.”

Joe-Joe calls him his confidant. “He’s genuine,” he says. “You always know what you’re going to get from him.”

His mother, Nancy, relies on his loyalty. “If there’s one kid in the family who’s going to make sure everyone is connected and stays together and does the right thing,” she says with motherly adoration, “it’s going to be Drew.”

Along with giving one hundred percent to all of these people who look to him, Drew Mika has committed his life to a cause that, in his lifetime, may not have the outcome he desires—a cure for diabetes. And yet, everyday, Mika wakes up, takes his blood sugar and focuses his sights on the day he and the millions of others who fight with him won’t ever have to pick up a needle again.

“It’s like training for a boxing match you may never fight in,” Mika says. In the search for a cure, “You kind of just—go.

 

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