When Ryan Reed races, it’s not just for personal glory: it’s for everyone with diabetes who has been discouraged from pursuing their dreams.
Ryan Reed knows that feeling all too well. Aged 17, he knew more than anything that he wanted was to be a NASCAR driver. He felt invincible. As a racer, he was improving all the time, and he had found a new independence in his personal life.
Then he was diagnosed with type 1, and his doctor told him to give up racing. But giving up wasn’t in his nature.
Since then, Ryan’s career has gone from strength to strength, and along the way he’s become a leading advocate for diabetes awareness.
Tell us about your diagnosis.
For me the diagnosis was probably the hardest part, in four years of me having diabetes. Mainly just because, certainly when I was diagnosed, I had no clue what diabetes was. I went in there and told the doctor my symptoms, and they had a pretty good idea it was diabetes. Sure enough, showed my blood sugar, and they started to run blood tests, and they told me I had diabetes. They told me I would never race again.
For me, racing was my whole life. After that, I thought my dreams were over when I got diagnosed.
Do you think it affected you more because you were diagnosed later in your life than most people with type 1?
Yes and no. I think certain parts made it harder; certain parts maybe made it a little bit easier. I didn’t have to go through school [with diabetes], I had graduated high school when I got diagnosed, so I think that part of it made it a little bit easier. I think school would be really tough to go through with diabetes.
I applaud all these kids out there that are going through school, I believe that there’s a lot of challenges with that. It was definitely harder in the sense that I was chasing a dream, and it was racing.
Who or what inspired to keep trying after you were diagnosed?
I don’t know if there was definitely one person, but for me, my family was definitely there to support me through the whole thing. They told me repeatedly that no matter what happens they’d be there to support me through it, which was extremely comforting at the time.
Burnout and emotional fatigue can be serious problems for people with diabetes. Did you ever feel like you couldn’t overcome the challenges posed by type 1?
Oh, for sure. It was about a month from the time that I was diagnosed before I got to see Anne, and she kind of turned things around for me. It was a challenging month for me; an emotionally challenging month of my life. Absolutely, I struggled with that some degree.
So you would advise other people with type 1 that they will go through these dark patches, and they just need to stay strong and keep trying?
Yeah, absolutely. As far as the biggest thing that people ask me “If I had one to tell someone living with diabetes, what would it be?”, that’s it, just don’t let it take you down. You can chase your dreams. And there’s going to be bad days, so it’s just about working out the bad days and pushing through to the good days, which are there. Diabetes is a disease that not every day is going to go like you want it to, but it’s just about perseverance and not letting it take you down.
What special routines do you have while driving? What is your set up?
I mount that on the dash. Then, if I have a low blood sugar there’s a drink inside my car that’s high in glucose. And then if I have high blood sugar there’s a guy who can give me an insulin injection at the pit stop, which I haven’t had happen, it’s a safety net, but still, it’s very comforting that we know what to do in that situation.
So how do you think that – away from driving – diabetes has changed you as a person?
I think that in a lot of ways it made me grow up. I think that as a 17 year old, when you start having to count carbs and take insulin shots…it has such a major impact. It definitely made me grow up a little bit.
I think that before then I was a typical 17-year-old, driving race cars, and I in the middle of moving away from my parents, so on top of the world, this kind of gave me a huge reality check and made me have to grow up. I realised that you’re not infallible, you have to take care of yourself, and for me that meant a lot more than working out and eating good.
You mentioned dietary changes – and presumably Dr. Peters has helped you with that – is there a particular diet you stick to?
I wouldn’t say there’s…I don’t follow a low-carb or a…there’s not one diet that I follow, but I worked with a nutritionist for the first couple of years of my diagnosis, and just tried to understand, understand the general concept of what carbohydrates are, just try and understand nutrition as a whole, and taking that time to understand it made me a much better athlete.
I think that, for me, one of the coolest things about working with Anne was that she not only wanted me to perform like an athlete, but she wanted me to train like an athlete and manage my diabetes around that. She wanted me to go out there and be able to train 100 per cent. I feel like I eat how I eat, I don’t sacrifice carbs and have low energy from my diabetes during a race, and that’s really cool.
As well as an athlete, you’re a leading advocate for diabetes awareness. Is there a particular way that you hope to change peoples’ perceptions of type 1?
For me, my biggest focus, certainly since my diagnosis, and being told I wouldn’t be able to race, my biggest goal has always been to just inspire people living with diabetes not to give up on their dreams, but there is a huge part of me that…I get very frustrated with some of the assumptions people have about people with diabetes: they can’t do this, they can’t do that, or that if you have diabetes then you are a certain way. So I tried to take every step that I could, whether that’s it’s as simple as, you know, if there’s a camera on me, checking my blood sugar in front of the camera, or obviously talking about it as much as I can, being as big an advocate as I can.
Having partners like Lilly Diabetes and Race Diabetes to help me use the platform and help me spread awareness is a huge help. It’s allowed me to focus on the nothing else but driving race cars and advocating for diabetes. It’s been a really crazy couple of years. It’s been a lot of fun.
Are there any particular moments that really stand out, when you felt like you were making a difference to the lives of people with diabetes?
I don’t know if there’s just one, but I have a lot of people in my life, whether it’s through racing or being at an event or a diabetes camp or whatever. You know, I have kids and their parents who I still talk to today, who I see quite often, it’s crazy what ties you together. I’ve built some amazing relationships through having diabetes.
So what means the most to me is when I get a chance to hang out with a kid or go somewhere to meet tons of kids. You know, they have diabetes and they manage it, they don’t let it slow them down at all, and it’s so inspiring to me because I know how tough it is to manage this disease. So when you see a seven-year-old or an eight-year-old or even younger than that counting carbs and taking insulin shots, God bless their parents for helping them to do all that and waking them up in the middle of the night.
It’s just really inspiring to me because I know how challenging that can be, and they’re as happy as can be, and playing sports or doing whatever it is they love to do without letting it slow them down.
Is there a particular piece of advice you’d give to young people with diabetes if you had a particular message to convey?
My biggest thing that I like to tell people is just “don’t let diabetes take away from your dreams. Don’t let diabetes emotionally defeat you, it’s amazing the technology we have nowadays to help manage your diabetes. If you want to, go out and chase your dreams, and don’t let diabetes stop you from doing that.”
You mentioned being annoyed by the assumptions people make. Are there any particular misconceptions about diabetes that annoy you?
Quite a few. I heard a story about a kid who was playing basketball, I believe in junior high, and the basketball coach pulled him off the team and wouldn’t let him play, just because he had been diagnosed with diabetes. He didn’t have any other reason than that.
“I think that hearing stories like that are probably the most frustrating for me, because that kid has every chance of playing basketball just as well as anyone else, and just has to manage his diabetes on top of that. I think those are the kind of the stories that really motivate me to continue being involved and try to do whatever I can to raise awareness.