How Diabetes Took Being a Pilot From Me

Editor’s Note: People with type 1 diabetes in Canada and the UK can fly commercially and enter the United States. Why can’t people with type 1 diabetes in United States do the same? Currently in the US, type 1 diabetes is a disqualifying factor for both first and second-class medicals. If you have type 1 diabetes (T1D), you cannot be a professional pilot.

I have a love/hate feeling when people tell those with type 1 diabetes that they can do anything anyone with a working pancreas can do. For obvious reasons, I’m so glad newly diagnosed T1s get to hear this because it brings so much comfort and relief during such an overwhelming time. And it’s true … for the most part. Yes, T1s can travel the world, climb mountains, play professional football, drive race cars and even bike across the country. But what isn’t true is that T1s can become professional pilots or join the military. I guess these get overlooked because they are only two things out of a world of possibilities, but it hits home because these were the two things that I had been striving for most of my life.
I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes September 19, 2016. I was 21 years old and it was 10 days before my 22nd birthday. In most ways, I am very thankful to have been diagnosed later in life because I got to enjoy almost 22 years of a fully-functioning pancreas. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be diagnosed as a toddler or in adolescence. But on the other hand, it may have helped to have known before committing to certain life goals. My diagnosis came during the second month of my last year in college. I was a senior studying Aviation Flight and I was half-way through my commercial pilot training when I found out that something was wrong with my health. I had spent the last three years working diligently towards becoming a professional pilot; I had earned my private pilot certificate, instrument rating and built up to 250 flight hours. Senior year, I was signed up for commercial and multi-engine training. After earning those certificates, I would have been set to start an entry level job as a pilot. Everything I had worked for was suddenly ripped away from me when I ended up in the emergency room one Monday afternoon.
Growing up, I always felt so fortunate for the opportunities that I had been given. I have a wonderful family who always helped me follow my dreams and I remember countless times in my life that I would stop and thank God for allowing me to be so happy. Not only did they support my decision to go to flight school, but they also supported me in my passion for racing. I was always known to be an adrenaline junkie, and I always wanted to race cars for sport.
Finally, my dad and I built a car in 2013 and I have been racing ever since. I absolutely fell in love with the sport and it became a passion of mine. Sure, it wasn’t all smooth sailing; but I couldn’t be happier to be out on the track. However, my parents felt that racing was taking up a lot of time and they preferred if I focused on my flying career. As sad as I was, I agreed that my career was more important and I needed to focus. So, September 4, 2016, my dad sold my car after one last race at the track. That day, racing was taken away from me, and 15 days later, flying was taken away from me. These were the two things in my life that made me who I was. And I was so proud of who I was.
In order to train and earn certain certificates in aviation, you must pass a medical certification mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). There are three levels of a medical that you can receive. To fly small planes for recreational use only, you need a third-class medical, which is the easiest to pass. A type 1 won’t be disqualified from a third-class medical because of their insulin dependence in most cases. Second-class medicals allow pilots to fly commercially, or essentially get paid to fly. First class medicals basically allow pilots to fly for major airlines. Currently, type 1 diabetes is a disqualifying factor for both first and second class medicals; if you have T1D, you cannot be a professional pilot. Although the FAA’s position is that it will do an individual assessment of people with diabetes for these certifications, no one in the United States has ever passed this “individual assessment.” Since I was in the middle of commercial training when diagnosed, I was immediately grounded and forced to drop my aviation flight major during my senior year.
When I first decided to race and become a pilot, I heard a lot of negative comments revolving around the idea that these aren’t typical activities for women. Regarding flying, some said to me, “That sounds way too hard, why don’t you just become a flight attendant instead?” or “As a woman, are you sure that’s a career that you really want?” Even my first flight instructor tried to fail me out of my first course because he was old-fashioned and believed that women belonged at home and definitely not in the cockpit of an airplane. However, this only made me work even harder to prove them all wrong.
After countless hours of training and studying, I earned my private pilot certificate, continued on to pass all of my tests, earn an instrument rating and several scholarships. I had persevered through all of the negativity and at this point, I thought nothing else could stand in my way. But when the government steps in and takes away your aviation medical certificate, my self-determination cannot do too much at this point.

All of the needles, lows, sleepless nights and carb counting don’t bother me that much, but the fact that my dreams and ambitions were taken away, crushes me every day. I want to prove that those living with type 1 diabetes can actually do anything though. I want to become the first professional pilot with type 1 diabetes. I want to change the mind of those who view this disease as a disqualifying factor for this career choice. I want to defy the odds once again and make a difference for others like me. And I genuinely trust that I have what it takes to accomplish all of this. But I can’t do it alone.

WRITTEN BY Danielle Dobczyk, POSTED 05/25/18, UPDATED 10/25/22

Danielle Dobczyk is 23 years old and from Minooka, Illinois. She was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes on September 19, 2016. She currently works as a flight logistics coordinator for a private jet charter company in Chicago, IL. As a hobby she raced stock cars at Grundy County Speedway in Morris, IL. She's currently using insulin pens and a glucometer for diabetes management, but is trying out the Omnipod and Dexcom.