Seeing diabetes as a gift, not a punishment

Anna and Heather Gabel

Heather Gabel was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 11. She sees it as a gift.

“It created my career,” says Gabel, a doctoral student in disability studies at the UIC College of Applied Health Sciences.

Gabel says she knew “right from the get-go” that she wanted to counteract the grim messages people receive when they are diagnosed with diabetes.

Her doctoral research focuses on the effectiveness of participation in online health communities and peer-support as a self-management strategy for adults with diabetes. She was the program assistant at DiabetesSisters, a nonprofit group that offers education and support to women of all ages who have diabetes. Last year, she was a facilitator at the first Diabetes UnConference, a peer exchange conference for adults who have diabetes.

Gabel’s work addresses patient-blame as a social barrier to health.

In an interview with Vocalo Radio’s “Morning AMp” show for Diabetes Awareness Month in November 2015, she talked about the importance of fighting the stigma associated with diabetes.

“We have a negative association with diabetes in this country, because we blame the patient,” she says. This often leads people to avoid getting tested for diabetes, she adds. “People don’t want to know.”

DiabetesSisters offers online discussion forums and resources, including blogs and Q&As with diabetes experts on topics like nutrition, pregnancy and emotional support. The organization sponsors peer-support meet-ups, organized by trained volunteer leaders.

“The diabetes online community is a vast resource for people with diabetes, or who think they might have diabetes,” Gabel says. “I have access now to a community that I never thought I would.”