Mary Tyler Moore’s Extraordinary Diabetes Legacy

The work this iconic actress did off-screen will aid others for years — take it from a fellow patient

by Jewels Doskicz | Updated 27 Jan 2017 at 4:37 PM

Chances are most of America never knew that Mary Tyler Moore, the iconic actress and social activist who died earlier this week at the age of 80 from complications of pneumonia, lived much of her life with type 1 diabetes.

Moore, most recognizable for her roles in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” took Hollywood by storm while tackling her illness behind the scenes.

In 1976, at the age of 33, Moore was diagnosed with the life-threatening condition that permanently stops the pancreas from producing insulin, a hormone essential to life. There is no cure for type 1 diabetes; its onset is marked by a complex merging of genetic and environmental factors. And the very medication people rely on to save their life can also be what kills them.

“Both children and adults like me who live with type 1 diabetes need to be mathematicians, physicians, personal trainers, and dietitians all rolled into one," Moore explained on the JDRF (formerly known as The Juvenile Diabetes Foundation) website. "We need to be constantly factoring and adjusting, making frequent finger sticks to check blood sugars, and giving ourselves multiple daily insulin injections just to stay alive."

Signs that a person might have diabetes type 1 include extreme weakness and/or tiredness; extreme thirst or dehydration; increased urination; abdominal pain; blurry vision; and wounds that don't heal well.

Moore became a standout figure for the 1.25 million Americans living with type 1 diabetes. She was awarded the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award in 2012 for her amazing work on-screen. But her humanitarian work, beginning in 1984, may arguably have been her most altruistic and impactful.

Moore advocated on Capitol Hill for type 1 diabetes and spent the last 30 years of her life as a JDRF International Chairman, raising millions of dollars for research along the way.

She became one of the most recognizable faces JDRF  has ever had.

Related: Can't Solve Diabetes if You Don't Have This

"Moore was a pioneer in not only going public with her diabetes, but taking it on as a cause," Desmond Schatz, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of Florida, told NPR. "She used her position, one of tremendous respect in the world, to raise awareness about type 1 diabetes. She has inspired and encouraged so many."

Moore was diagnosed in an era of only rudimentary tools and techniques to manage ever-changing blood glucose values. Pig insulin, testing urine for sugar loads, and newly developed disposable syringes were cutting edge in the 1970s.

Those with the disease stare down the possibility of death virtually every day. Yet she was able to have a strong career in the entertainment world and advocate for other patients even though she had the worst management tools possible.

Replicating the intricate workings of a pancreas is a nearly impossible full-time occupation. This writer knows: I've spent 10 years managing it for my daughter and 33 years managing it for myself. Type 1 diabetes remains an imprecise science experiment regardless of today’s new bells and whistles. Insulin, the very medicine that saves lives, can just as quickly take them away.

As a diabetic myself, I raise a toast to Mary Tyler Moore, an All-American legend who lived nearly 50 years of her life with type 1 diabetes. Moore’s dedication toward her health and that of total strangers was remarkable.

"I want to send my deepest condolences to the family of Mary Tyler Moore," JDRF's CEO Derek Rapp wrote on Twitter, adding: "Mary was a true #T1D Champion and JDRF leader. She will be missed."

Jewels Doskicz is an Arizona-based registered nurse, a patient advocate, and a health consultant. 

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