THE BLOG
05/27/2010 04:53 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Diabetes Health: Nicole Johnson, Former Miss America, Kicks Off Diabetes Sister's 1st "Weekend For Women"

I just returned from Raleigh, North Carolina where former Miss America, Nicole Johnson, and I were arm in arm - and I was wearing the crown! Yet, I take my crown off to Ms. Johnson for the very real and inspiring talk she gave about living with diabetes. Ms. Johnson got type 1 diabetes at 19 years old, about 15 years ago.

Ms. Johnson was the key-note speaker for Diabetes Sister's "Weekend for Women" [sponsored by Taking Control of Your Diabetes (TCOYD)]. This was the first event of its kind expected to be an annual gathering.

One hundred women, with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes, aged 21 to 80, gathered to feel a little less alone and learn from each other and a roster of distinguished health professionals - MDs, Ph.Ds, Behavioral Psychologists, Exercise Physiologists, Dietitians and Diabetes Educators - many of whom work and teach at Duke University, a hotbed of diabetes research and other universities.

Having only seen Ms. Johnson before on TV as one of the co-hosts of the program, dLife: For Your Diabetes Life! I was not prepared for the warmth and winning personality she revealed and how she figuratively wrapped her arms around the entire room with her heartfelt story of living with diabetes. Along with her story she inspired us to think: Can you use your challenge to make your life even bigger and better than you might have once thought possible?

When it came to going after the Miss America crown, she unabashedly admitted to her stubborn nature but also said, "If I hadn't been diagnosed with diabetes I wouldn't have had the fire to say I'm going to try and keep going 'till it happens."

It became more and more evident Ms. Johnson sees diabetes as a blessing. As she said, "Although I'd love to get rid of this disease, I wouldn't trade it for the world because of the perspective it gives me."

While competing in the Miss Virginia Pageant in 1997, Ms. Johnson's blood sugar dropped so low she fell into a coma-like state. It was only after she was revived that she "came out" about her diabetes, and pleaded with pageant officials to let her stay in the competition. She returned no longer hiding her insulin pump and finished among the top 10 finalists.

In 1999, Johnson won the Miss America Pageant and began to advocate for diabetes across the country, and internationally, lobbying members of Congress and helping to pass diabetes insurance legislation. She is, she admitted with a smile, competitive and it serves her well.

Of course every good speaker knows not to be on stage with a child or an animal, yet it was her daughter, Ava, who brought another dimension to the physically beautiful woman we saw in front of us. As Ava assisted her mom in taking her crown out of its royal box, Johnson said tearing up, "This is the child I was told I could never have." As so many women with type 1 diabetes were told three and four decades ago.

Much of Johnson's story is inspiring, some would say, because she has achieved a certain level of celebrity. But all our individual stories are inspiring and we'd be best served to follow three snippets of hard-won wisdom she shared:

1. Take up whatever your challenge is and let it be what spurs you to go after what you hope for and dream of - and then make someone else's life better

2. Know that in the beginning there may be suffering, but with the passage of time you will become stronger

3. Our challenge has an impact on those we love and life with and seeing how we live with it can teach them something profoundly positive

I'm sure Brandy Barnes, founder of Diabetes Sisters, would say the same. It was Brandy's dream after getting type 1 diabetes at 15 years old to help other women with diabetes feel less alone by providing education and support. Brandy saw her dream stare back at her through 200 eyes as she welcomed us to the conference in her gentle gee, shucks soft drawl. "I can't believe you're all here," she said, "and that we've gotten here so quickly."

In the words of Ms. Johnson, take care of yourself and a whole new world can open up to you.

In my words, you can even be crowned by Miss America!

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(Photo by Claire Blum)

Here's one last thing I want to share with you that I heard at the conference from a speaker on coping. It may inspire you as you press on every day:

"I can complain because a rose bush has thorns or rejoice because a thorn bush has roses."

In other words, when life throws us a curve ball like diabetes, or any other challenge, it is up to us how we choose to see it and what we do about it. Do we see a possible gift in what we've been handed and perhaps use our challenge to develop greater strength and courage or do we only see that we've been injured?

I think Brandy would agree with me that this weekend 100 women shared pieces of their story, reflecting on how far they've come and inspiring, and being inspired by, their sisters.