Activity and adventure run in her blood, which is even more inspiring when you learn that this vibrant 31-year-old was diagnosed with diabetes two decades ago. Learn more about her trials and triumphs, what she’s doing to empower and educate others - with and without diabetes - and the upcoming event where she’ll be honored.
This September will mark 20 years since Leah Fuller was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. “As any person with diabetes will tell you, it has been a journey filled with many highs and lows,” says Leah Fuller, one of the honorees at Cincy Chic’s upcoming Red, Pink & Blue event.
Fuller says that she remembers vividly when she was 11 and crying in the parking lot of her doctor’s office while she waited for her parents to check out so they could head to the hospital.
Being a young child, Fuller didn’t really understand what the condition she’d just been diagnosed with was, but when a nurse told her it meant she wouldn’t be able to have cake at her upcoming birthday party she was devastated.
Soon, Fuller was taking insulin injections, counting carb servings, and testing her blood sugar. She credits the team at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital with teaching her everything she needed to know and do when it came to treating her Type 1 diabetes.
As with anything in life, Fuller encountered obstacles following her diagnosis. “I struggled with my weight,” she says. “Initially, I needed to gain some weight but then I couldn’t stop. With my new medications and a strict diet of three meals and three snacks per day, I steadily gained about 20 pounds a year through my adolescence, despite playing five sports.”
This particular challenge led Fuller to encounter good doctors and bad ones. She says that some would tell her to do better but not tell her how. “They would make me feel like a ‘bad’ diabetic because I couldn’t always get my blood sugar under control, despite my best efforts while still trying to live as normal a life as I could,” she says.
Fuller has encountered her fair share of scary low blood sugar moments. She even got to the point where she slept with a baby monitor in her room so that her parents could hear her as she slept.
Throughout the years, Fuller missed her share of sleepovers and events, and plenty of times of not feeling well. But she adds that there were always people who were there to support her, including her parents. They were people walking and riding with her, and donating money in her name to the American Diabetes Association (ADA) to fund research and education, which she says meant a lot.
“Now there are better insulins and technology available that have made life easier, and my control better,” she says. “There are still struggles – insulin pumps and continuous blood glucose monitors alarming, or even falling off at inopportune moments, and my parents still calling me every morning to make sure I made it through the night OK.”
“Diabetes has made me a stronger person, and taught me a lot about healthcare and medicine at a young age,” she says. “And it made me want to help other people with diabetes, so that their path could have fewer or smaller obstacles than mine did.”
Through her journey, Fuller says that she’s learned a lot about herself. She learned that she’s a smart, fun, adventurous, compassionate woman who happens to have diabetes. “I have learned that diabetes is a big part of my life, but it doesn’t define me,” she says. “I have learned that I am resourceful, creative, and strong, because diabetes can create all kinds of obstacles to complicate the simplest of tasks. And I have learned that I’m not alone in this, and I have loving friends and family who support me and do what they can to help me manage my diabetes if I need them.
Following high school, Fuller decided to head off to college and become a pharmacist. She also spent a year of residency specializing in diabetes management and eventually accumulated enough experience and education to become a certified diabetes educator.
“It is amazing to have patients come in with their walls up and then be able to tell them that I’ve encountered the same struggles, and we work together to make their experience better,” she says.
Fuller currently works at Kroger pharmacy as well as at the University of Cincinnati. She sees people with diabetes and teaches other pharmacists and students so they can also specialize in diabetes management.
When asked about how she hopes to inspire other young girls who are diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, she says she wants show them that a diagnosis isn’t shameful or embarrassing and that they can do anything, with or without diabetes.
“I used to hesitate to tell people I have diabetes, or not seek help if I needed it because I didn’t want to put people out and I didn’t want to be ‘different,’” she says. “To be honest, up until last year, I was still strategically planning what I would be doing and wearing for the next few days so I could place my insulin pump and continuous blood glucose monitor in places on my body that wouldn’t be visible.”
However, that changed when she spent a few days volunteering as Camp Korelitz, a camp put on by the ADA for kids with diabetes. It was here that Fuller was inspired. The kids at camp didn’t have to think twice about having their pumps out where they could be seen. “I ended up putting mine on my arm just so I could fit in,” she says. “Wearing your equipment in a visible place might invite questions, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
Fuller adds that since she stopped hiding her Type 1 diabetes, she’s met many other people who also have the condition. She says she enjoys empowering, encouraging and maybe even surprising those she meets. “I had a few people tell me I wouldn’t be able to do or be involved in certain things growing up because I have diabetes, but I’d like to think I’ve proved them wrong at this point,” she says.
Fuller has completed century rides on her bike, finished a Tough Mudder race, many obstacle courses, run half marathons and countless other competitions, hiked/paddled boarded/toured several countries around the world for weeks at a time on her own, and participates in eight sports throughout the year. “Sometimes it will take a little more preparation and though, but don’t ever let your diabetes keep your from accomplishing one of your dreams,” she adds.
“It’s been 20 years of struggles and triumphs, and I’m thankful that I’m standing here today with no complications,” says Fuller. “If there ever was a good time to have diabetes, I think this would be it. There is so much exciting research going on right now, I’m looking forward to seeing what the future brings.”
That future includes Fuller’s own research to explore ways to prevent and reverse type 1 diabetes. There’s a lot of new technology that’s currently being tested to make controlling blood sugars easier than ever. She’s also signed up to participate in several studies.
Fuller also hosts at least two fundraisers each year to support her 100-mile bike ride for the ADA Tour de Cure, which takes place every summer. To learn more about how to donate, click here.
Fuller is one of three survivors who will be recognized at Cincy Chic’s upcoming Red, Pink & Blue event on Friday, June 24. Learn more about the event by clicking here.