A T1D Love Story


Editors Note: Samantha and Ryan are now married! Congratulations, newlyweds! 

I’ll never forget the moment Ryan tested my blood sugar for the first time. It was early in our relationship; early enough that my stomach still did backflips whenever he called or texted; so early that I still checked my teeth for food any time he left the room. In fact, our relationship was new enough that—had he been anyone else—I would not have yet shared the news that I have type 1 diabetes.

The first time happened unexpectedly. It was a dreary Sunday evening, and we were curled on my couch watching a movie, though neither of us was truly paying attention. Instead, we were monitoring every movement, breath and word; exhilarated to be dating someone new, yet terrified our next bad joke or poorly-timed sneeze might mess the whole thing up. As I risked a shift in positioning, Ryan slipped his hand softly into my own, cradling it affectionately as I adjusted the blankets. Of course, we both pretended the moment was benign, though my racing heart was eager to give me away.

Filled with adrenaline, I dared a glance in his direction. His features were still so new to me that, with each date, I noted with interest a quality I had not yet discovered. For example, the way he smiled from the right side of his mouth, his perfect cupid’s bow, or the way his eyes could go from deep brown to striking chartreuse in the sunlight. As I secretly studied him, I could not help but wonder if we were perhaps—just maybe—falling in love.

As if roused by the L-word, the steady drum in my chest was joined by a fervent pulse in my wrists. I adjusted my hand, worried that Ryan could feel the thumping through our entwined fingers, only to realize my palms were slightly damp. In response, Ryan turned and locked his perpetually smiling eyes into mine. My face was suddenly hot.

“Samantha, I think … ” he began to say. The room felt like it was spinning. Was he about to speak the thought lingering on my mind?

Something, however, was not right. His tone was serious, and his mouth was slowly curling into a frown and what came next was not quite what I was expecting.

“… I think your blood sugar might be low.”

It took a few seconds for me to reconcile his words, and as the lightbulbs went off, Ryan took the lead. He fished my test kit from the depths of my oversized purse, placed a strip into the meter, and in one swift movement, squeezed a fresh drop of blood from the tip of my ring finger. It was as if he had been doing the procedure his entire life. Which, as it so happens, he nearly had. At just 3 years old, Ryan was also diagnosed with type 1 diabetes; one year before I was born, two years before my own diagnosis, and almost 27 years before we would finally meet.

Though I was, indeed, hypoglycemic, and the room was still spinning, and Ryan was preoccupied with forcing glucose tablets into my sweaty hands, I realized that, yes, we were most certainly falling in love. And as my cherished “diaboyfriend,” Ryan has been redefining and expanding the meaning of that love every day since we first met.

There are some obvious perks that come from type 1 diabetes (T1D) coupledom. For example, if I run out of test strips when we’re out to dinner, I can just borrow Ryan’s blood glucose meter instead. When you’re both type 1, there is no need to worry about empty insulin vials during a weekend getaway because the backup supplies are always doubled.

Yet other advantages are subtler. For instance, I never have to apologize for a hyperglycemic mood swing. (Okay, maybe not never, but at least I get more empathy than I otherwise would.) Having another honed radar constantly scanning for unusual symptoms also gives me a sense of safety I have not had since moving out of my parent’s house. There have been numerous occasions when Ryan has bolted awake and into action after I failed to hear a critical low blood sugar alert, and no matter how few hours remain before sunrise, he always stays awake with me until my blood sugar levels stabilize. While we may not get much sleep between the two of us with multiple insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors (CGMs) always vying for attention, there is a wonderful sense of normalcy that comes from sharing these uniquely T1D experiences with your significant other.

The most wonderful part about being with Ryan is not the extra test strips, however; rather, it is the powerful lessons I have learned about what it means to love someone with a chronic disease, including myself. Before Ryan, I believed that my T1D was something a partner must learn to overlook like a character flaw or shameful secret. I felt that I would be lucky to find someone, anyone, tolerant enough to bear the enormous burden of blood and needles that came with my less-than-ideal package. Though I never consciously admitted to holding these beliefs until now, I certainly acted on them.

For many years, I dated people who were—to put it nicely—less-than-ideal themselves. I justified their cheating, lying, or emotional immaturity with the belief that if they were big enough to accept my T1D, I had no choice but to accept their subpar treatment in return. Yet even in my most tumultuous relationships, the other person was never entirely to blame for our dysfunctional dynamics. From the outset, I had presented to them a false sense of who I was; minimizing the significance of my T1D, making invisible the most difficult parts, distracting them with how smart or funny I could be in the hopes that—just maybe—they would forget about my diabetes and accidentally love me.

Consequently, there are moments from my dating history that I’m not proud of. They surface sometimes when Ryan is most attentive, loving and accepting, as if trying to make the point, “Remember how things used to be?” Like a memory from my sophomore year of college, when I found myself fortuitously alone with my longtime crush. Terrified the discovery of my disease would disrupt whatever might come next, I politely dismissed myself to the bathroom, where I numbly unclipped my insulin pump, ripped out my inset, scrubbed the residual glue from my belly with a tissue and hand soap and threw the evidence into my purse without a second glance.

When I juxtapose a memory like this one with the newer ones, the better ones, I realize all the ways that hiding my T1D dulled my earlier experiences of dating, and compromised my chances of finding true love. The jubilation of a first kiss was always tempered by the fear that their next move would expose the insulin pump clipped to my waistline. The excitement of a sleepover was always modulated by the panic that I might have a low blood sugar in my sleep. I hardly had time to worry about bad jokes or food in my teeth because all my energy was consumed by projecting a false image of my body and identity.

And then came Ryan; a man who loves when I wear my Dexcom on one arm and Omnipod on the other, throws Starbursts and juice boxes into my bag when I’m not looking (just-in-case), kisses the bruises and scars on my belly from my pump sites and monitors my CGM in my sleep even if no alarms have sounded. It might seem reasonable to conclude that Ryan only cares for me in these ways because he has T1D himself, and therefore understands the value and meaning of these deeds in my life. The truth, though, is that he would make these sacrifices and gestures even without the experience of living with an incurable disease.

It is in Ryan’s nature to be loving, supportive, patient, devoted, thoughtful, understanding and giving toward the people he loves. These important qualities, I realize now, are the ones I should have sought in a partner all along. They are also all the characteristics that any person with type 1 diabetes deserves from any person they decide to date, T1D or not, no matter how enduring or short-lived the relationship might be. Though sometimes I wish I had allowed myself to be cared for and loved in these essential ways sooner, perhaps this hard-learned lesson was always meant to be taught to me by Ryan—and no one else.

Read First Dates by Angela Wing.

WRITTEN BY Samantha Willner, POSTED 02/06/17, UPDATED 10/06/22

Samantha Willner was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1991 when she was just 1 year old. Since then, she has played an active role both personally and professionally in the diabetes community, previously working for JDRF International as a donor relations director and chairing the JDRF mentor program in NYC. Samantha also holds a B.S. in communication from Cornell University and recently earned her MPH from Yale, where she conducted original research on barriers to insulin access affecting U.S. adults with type 1 diabetes. Currently based out of Philadelphia with her husband with type 1 diabetes and fellow GAC member, Ryan Campbell, Samantha is passionate about being a role model and inspiration for type 1 children and teens. For more insight into her life with T1D, you can follow her on Instagram @samanthawillner.