Diabetes Scholar Michael Brolly Talks to Beyond Type 1
Editor’s Note: Michael Brolly currently attends the Georgia Tech. He was awarded a scholarship through Diabetes Scholars in 2016. We caught up with him to find out more about the transition to college life with type 1 diabetes and what his future holds. Interested in Diabetes Scholars + 2019 Scholarship opportunities? Find out more here.
How did you first hear about Diabetes Scholars?
My mom and I were looking up scholarships when I was in high school because I wasn’t sure whether or not I was going to Notre Dame or Georgia Tech, and Notre Dame, as you probably know, is kind of expensive. So we thought, I’ve got diabetes, and I want to do work with diabetes. Maybe I could try and find a diabetes scholarship kind of thing.
What is your major?
I’m actually dual-degreeing now—I’m biomedical engineering and math.
How did you become interested in biomedical engineering?
Ever since I was younger, I wanted to do biomedical engineering. The first time I heard about it came about because I have type 1 diabetes (T1D), but I also always loved understanding how my insulin pumps worked, and I loved understanding how continuous glucose monitors (CGMs) work, and glycosylated hemoglobin (A1Cs), and when I got to Georgia Tech, I was able to do some research for someone in the diabetes field. It was kind of cool. My boss has T1D, and we would talk about our blood sugars, and we would compare notes on everything. So it’s been fun. Through one of my bio-med classes, I met someone who is trying to develop an easier way to administer glucagon, so I’ve been helping out with that as well. The professor of their class reached out to me because I had talked to him about my experiences with all these cool BME devices, and the Medtronic pump and CGMs, and he asked if I could give them some insight from my personal experiences.
Can you talk about what it was like when you were first diagnosed?
It was January 19th, 2003, so I just had my 16th dia-birthday recently. My uncle and grandfather both had T1D and I look like them a lot, and have the same mannerisms as they do. When I started telling my mom I was really, really thirsty—because my mom, she’s really smart, she’s really organized about everything, and she’s really good at planning. She knew that when she and my dad had kids, there was a chance that one of them would have type 1 diabetes. She asked my dad to get some ketone strips so we could test my ketones, and I checked, and they were high. They basically took me to the hospital right then. So we caught it pretty early, which is really nice that we didn’t have any long-term or bad complications with it.
How do you manage your diabetes?
I like to think that I take pretty good care of myself. My 16-year A1C average is a 6.7, I believe. I learned to take care of it because my uncle takes really good care of it, and he regiments everything that he does around his diabetes. Now, I’m 19 turning 20, and I’m in college. So I’m a little more lenient about everything, but I try and be really careful. Whenever I’m eating, I have take into consideration the food, the carbs, the protein, the fat, the time of day—it’s a lot of numbers, and it’s a lot of patterns so I think maybe that’s why I like doing the math, too.
What was the transition to college life like for you with diabetes? How was it leaving home and how did your management of things change?
I will definitely say the first few weeks of college, my blood sugars were a lot lower than they usually were, which was kind of scary to me because if I’m in a new place, I don’t want to be falling asleep with low blood sugar that night. It kind of surprised me how much walking I ended up doing my first year, and how much that would factor into having to change my basal rate. I think I cut it down to 85 percent originally, and then I had to cut it down to 75 percent, and then my body adjusted to it, and I ended up eating more, so then I could bring my basal back up to normal. Being able to tell the people around me that I have T1D [was also crucial]. I have some people who can see my blood sugars on the Dexcom app. I know other T1Ds on campus. I’ve helped them out if they have low blood sugar and they need glucose, or they’ve come and helped me out if I had low blood sugar and I left my juice boxes in my room and they were right by class—that kind of thing. It’s different trying to adjust to it because you’re living on your own, but there are a lot of resources out there if you choose to look for them.
Have you had a 504 plan?
I had a 504 in high school and I have accommodations now for my diabetes, which is really nice. I haven’t had to use them, but it’s good to have them just in the event that I have a low blood sugar and I have to miss a class or I have a high blood sugar and I’m not in the right mindset to take a quiz.
What pump do you have?
I was using the Medtronic, but the problem is I have a lot of scar tissue in some of the parts where I’ve been putting my pumps, and I don’t have enough room to put sites on my stomach, but I have enough skin and fat to put in insulin shots, so I switched from the pump to insulin shots. I’ve been doing that for a few months just so I can let the scar tissue die down on my backside into my arms. So I’ve been cycling back and forth and as of right now I’ve just taken a short break from the Medtronic.
Do you have a specialization that you want to go into?
I’d like the idea of using math to understand the physiology of the body. I like using math to try and convert the processes in our body, like metabolic processes or stuff regarding insulin production or beta cell reproduction and being able to quantify them so we can use that to build devices in the future—almost to try and find the equations, the math and all the patterns behind what is going on in our bodies so we can try and replicate it. It’s the perfect mix for me of math and biomedical engineering.
Do you have any advice for someone applying for the scholarship or who is transitioning to college with diabetes?
With the scholarship and in general, I think it’s important to not let your diabetes define you. I think it’s an important part of our lives, but it shouldn’t hold us back from everything. I think it’s important to try and utilize 504 plans or accommodations at your school or try and join diabetes groups so that way you can get the kind of support that you really need, that way you don’t feel like you’re alone when you’re trying to deal with high blood sugars that night. That really helped me. I also lived with a person with type 1 diabetes my first year, which is kind of neat. I chose a random room, and he and I had known each other, but I didn’t know he was going to Tech because I had met him through a T1D camp. It’s not nearly as isolating when you can reach out to other people like that.