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Facing Extreme Challenges

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Facing Extreme Challenges

April 23, 2010

Source: American Diabetes Association 

April 23, 2010--Professional outdoorsman Tim Duffy has been a ski patrolman in Utah and a mountain guide in Alaska; he’s rescued stranded or injured skiers in the Rockies and the Himalayas. For fun, he mountain bikes, surfs, kayaks, and pretty much looks for any opportunity for an outdoors adrenaline rush.  Diabetes Forecast, the consumer magazine of the American Diabetes Association, reports that it’s with this same vigor that Duffy faced – and won – a case of diabetes-related discrimination with the Coast Guard.  The May issue of Diabetes Forecast features Duffy’s successes and the challenges he’s faced as an extreme athlete since his diagnosis with type 1 diabetes.

While Duffy was working at a ski resort, managing avalanches on the slopes in 2006, he began to experience unquenchable thirst and frequent urination. Having received basic medical training for his patrol and guiding work, he recognized these as common symptoms of diabetes, but he thought it couldn’t possibly be happening to him.  Eventually, he ended up in a clinic with a blood glucose level of 477 mg/dl. After a few days in the hospital learning as much as he could about the disease, Duffy decided to take on diabetes as a challenge and set about fitting the disease (and all its required maintenance and equipment) into his lifestyle – including a ski bib with chest pockets that would keep his blood glucose meter close enough to his body to function in subzero temperatures.

It was no surprise to anyone who knows Duffy when he decided to apply for a Coast Guard-approved Master of Inland license in order to captain a passenger boat on Alaska’s Prince William Sound for clients of his newly acquired adventure travel company.  What was a surprise, however, was the Coast Guard’s denying him the credential. Although Duffy’s endocrinologist said that he managed his diabetes with tight control, the Coast Guard stated that it would not approve a waiver for a person on insulin who had experienced repeated low blood glucose readings. Duffy knew his new business venture depended on his fighting this ruling, so he turned to the American Diabetes Association. It connected him with the chair of the Association’s Advocacy Committee, Janel Wright, a former civil rights lawyer. 

"They just don’t have an adequate understanding of the science of diabetes," Wright says of the Coast Guard’s decision. Wright’s "request for reconsideration" focused on educating the decision makers with recommendations from Duffy’sendocrinologist and testimony from another endocrinologist to help correct the Coast Guard’s flawed assumptions. Nearly a year after Duffy had first submitted his application, he was granted the credentials necessary and became a boat captain. "The learning point, for me," Duffy says, "is that there’s just no limit – diabetes is not a limit that’s put upon you."

Duffy continues to manage his diabetes as if it were one more adventure. "I’m a pretty particular guy," he tells Diabetes Forecast, "I have decent attention to detail – I figure I’m an all right candidate for this condition." He hasn’t given up his lifestyle, with its range of oceans and altitudes and extreme temperatures. In fact, he says, "To some degree, diabetes has given me even more drive."

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Photo: Jordan Manley

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