From Coast Guard Officer to Author: How a T1D Diagnosis Changed This Man’s Path
As a man of the military, Thomas “Buddy” Bardenwerper’s type 1 diabetes diagnosis was not your average type 1 diabetes (T1D) story. But in the long run, it led him down a creative path he never dreamed possible. Four years post-diagnosis, Buddy is now the proud author of Mona Passage: A Novel.
A T1D diagnosis in the Coast Guard
As he wrote in his piece for Beyond Type 1 back in 2019, Buddy had a vague understanding of diabetes from having a grandfather who lived with diabetes. But it wasn’t until Buddy himself was diagnosed in 2017 while serving in the coast guard that his world was very much turned upside down by diabetes.
After his diagnosis, Buddy was medically discharged by the coast guard.
“When the diabetes diagnosis happened—when that happens to anybody—obviously there’s a lot to come to grips with and to accept and to learn about. And it’s a very jarring situation for anybody in any walk of life,” Buddy says. “But [for someone in the] military, there’s this added aspect of your whole professional identity and sense of self also being thrown into question.”
Forging a new path
Buddy decided against potentially being transferred to a cubicle and began considering his next steps. Finding himself with a lot of extra time that he was not accustomed to, Buddy started to explore creative outlets.
“I was down in Puerto Rico and suddenly I had a lot of time on my hands, so I decided to do something productive and something that maybe would help me process everything that was going on in my life,” Buddy says. “I started writing some fictional scenes based on some things that I’d seen during my time in the coast guard. And I enjoyed it. It was kind of therapeutic in a way. And as I kept writing these scenes, the story slowly came to me.”
Although he had no formal training in creative writing, Buddy was confident in his narrative arc and character development. After his rough draft was complete, he hired a writing coach to get feedback and develop the story further.
“I think this whole experience of writing, especially the coast guard related story, was almost a way for me to end this coast guard chapter in my life on my own terms,” Buddy says, “Because who knows how long I would have stayed in [the Coast Guard], had it not been for the diabetes. But I didn’t want to go out the way that I was going out. And this gave me a way to process all of these changes and take ownership of this transition in my life and finish it the way I wanted to finish it.”
Developing his story
Mona Passage is the story of an unlikely friendship between Pat, a coast guard officer stationed in Puerto Rico and his Cuban emigrant neighbor, Galán—both outsiders in the San Juan community in their own ways.
“The characters gravitate toward each other for the friendship that they can’t find necessarily elsewhere in San Juan,” Buddy says.
Galán’s sister’s developmental handicaps push Galán to attempt to smuggle her from Cuba to Puerto Rico. Tensions rise as Pat’s job to patrol the waters creates a moral dilemma.
Mona Passage manages to explore very pure human emotion and inner turmoil while also taking you on a suspenseful journey that will keep you on the edge of your seat for the whole ride.
Buddy now finds himself studying to become a lawyer at Harvard Law School and enjoying life with his wife and their 1-year-old daughter.
“I was extremely fortunate to be able to transition pretty smoothly from the coast guard to law school during this whole period when I was working on the novel,” Buddy says.
Though he doesn’t see actively pursuing more creative writing in his future unless it happens organically—as Mona Passage did—Buddy remains grateful for the experience and the role that type 1 diabetes played into the journey.
“Had I never been diagnosed with diabetes, I would have been so focused on my coast guard career and on the rat race of trying to get into law school that I just never would have the time to sit back and write and have something like the story come to me,” Buddy says of this T1D diagnosis.
“Obviously, I’m not saying that everybody who gets diagnosed diabetes should go write a book. But there may be opportunities that you weren’t aware of that this curve ball in life can give you,” He adds. “Some people, like me, might be in unique circumstances where it provides an opportunity to completely change the direction of their life.”