Aerospace engineer April Blackwell works at NASA’s Mission Control. She dreamed of being an astronaut but her type 1 diabetes diagnosis at age 11 changed everything. Since that day, though, she has found ways to break down barriers and pursue her love of space.
April calls herself a “rule-questioner” and shares where asking those questions got her. She and Stacey talk about everything from family – she has two young children – to what it’s like to work as part of history in the space program.
In Tell Me Something Good, a milestone for a tween with T1D – and her whole family gets in on the celebration.
This podcast is not intended as medical advice. If you have those kinds of questions, please contact your health care provider.
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Episode transcription (Note: this is a rough transcription of the show. Please excuse spelling/grammar/punctuation errors)
Stacey Simms 0:01
Diabetes Connections is brought to you by One Drop created for people with diabetes by people who have diabetes. By Real Good Foods real food you feel good about eating, and by Dexcom take control of your diabetes and live life to the fullest with Dexcom.
This week, aerospace engineer April Blackwell works at NASA’s mission control. She always wanted to be an astronaut, but she was diagnosed with type one at age 11. And that changed everything. But since that day, she’s found ways to break down barriers and pursue her love of space.
April shares where asking those questions got her and we talked about everything from family – she has two young children – to what it’s like to work as a part of history in the space program in Tell me something good a milestone for a tween with type one, and the whole family gets in on the celebration.
This podcast is not intended as medical advice. If you have those kinds of questions, please contact your healthcare provider.
Stacey Simms 1:32
Welcome to our first full show of 2020 Happy New Year everybody. Hope your year is off to a great start if you’re new to diabetes connections, welcome. I’m your host Stacey Simms. We aim to educate and inspire about type one diabetes by sharing stories of connection. My son was diagnosed 13 years ago, just before he turned two. He’s now a freshman in high school. He’s 15 years old. My husband has type two diabetes I don’t have diabetes, but I have a background in broadcasting and local radio and TV news. And that is how you get the podcast.
As you have heard, if you are a longtime listener, some new things this year, we have some new sponsors. I dropped a minisode, a short episode last week. We’re going to be doing those every week. So you get the full episode, which is something like this where it’s an interview and we have some segments and then you’ll have that minisode and planning for every week right now. We’ll see how it goes. Which is a much shorter episode just me on one topic. And please follow along on social media because we’re doing more new stuff this year. On the Tell me something good segment which has become really popular in the show. We’re putting that out on social media every week, making sure you’re following on Instagram. I am Stacey Simms on Instagram, there’s only the one account on Facebook, Diabetes Connections the Group, although I do post everything on our page, but you know how Facebook is sometimes they are just obnoxious and don’t show you everything you want to see.
Something else I’m trying in the new year is transcription. I am putting in the show transcription of every episode. On the episode homepage. You can go to diabetes dash connections dot come, and you scroll down. Make sure you look at the current episode, click on that. And in the show notes will be the transcription of the interview and hopefully the whole episode as well. as well. Something new we’re trying we’ll see how people like it will see how you respond if it’s popular and people use it will keep doing it. I have had a lot of requests for the transcripts over the four and a half years of the show and as Technology is better and better. It’s been a lot easier to get that done. Done. Maybe I’ll do it behind the scenes minisode One of these days and tell you about all the changes that we’ve gone through and some of the technology as podcasting really grows, how things have changed, but I know you’re here to talk about April and NASA and how she got involved in the space program. It’s such a great story. My talk with April Blackwell in just a moment, but first
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My guest this week is not someone who takes the answer No, and accepts it and goes away quietly. April Blackwell grew up dreaming of the space program. As you’ll hear, she watched out for NASA news. Like most of us watched Saturday morning cartoons when we were kids. But a diagnosis of T1D in sixth grade grounded her astronaut dreams. But how did you decide to carry on anyway? You know what did you have to do? To get where she is at mission control. her blog name and her Skype handle are nerdy April, and you’ll hear me ask about that. But I gotta tell you, when you talk to someone on Skype, which is how I do a lot of these interviews, the the avatar, the logo, whatever you want to call it, of their name, or their face is on the screen. So the whole time I was talking to her, it said nerdy April on the screen, which really made me smile, all right here, which really made me smile on the screen, which really just made me smile, and I did have to ask her about it. Her story, though, is it’s a story of grit, of asking questions and refusing to give up. Here’s my conversation with mission controls. April Blackwell.
Stacey Simms 0:03
April, thanks for joining me. I’m sure you’re really busy. And I appreciate you taking the time to talk to us. How are you?
I’m doing wonderful. How are you?
I’m great. And I’m excited to be talking to you. I have lots and lots of questions. But I have to start with, with your name online and on Skype as we’re talking nerdy April. Did you reclaim that nerdy title?
April Blackwell 0:27
Oh, I am a I’m a proud nerd. I think all nerds who are truly nerds are proud of it. So it actually started though, because the my blog title started as Nerdy April’s Space Adventures. And if you take that as an acronym, like, you know, everything NASA related, it spells out NASA so it kind of was a little bit of a play on words and acronyms there, but it kind of turned into just Nerdy April and that’s how I’ve been rolling lately.
Stacey Simms 0:59
Okay, So I want to ask you at the blog, I want to ask you about NASA, but let’s start at the beginning. You knew that you wanted to be involved in science and in space from a very early age, right?
April Blackwell 1:13
Yeah, I was only about five or six years old. I was in a kindergarten and my dad actually, he is an aircraft mechanic. And so there’s a little connection there. But he also is just a deep lover of the space program. And he grew up in the Apollo days, sort of that romanticized moon landings and everything and he was just an amateur but it and his love for the space program just really captured me. And so that’s kind of where that all was inspired from.
Stacey Simms 1:45
What were you doing, though, at age five? I mean, when you were with your dad, looking at stars were you watching launches?
April Blackwell 1:52
We weren’t watching launches. I grew up in Arizona, so it’s pretty far away. Florida, where most of the launches happened. Well,
Stacey Simms 1:58
(laughs) I was thinking about on TV.
April Blackwell 2:00
Yeah, yeah, I definitely watch some on TV we did have a very rudimentary telescope. So we would go out and mostly look at the moon since that was it a big target we could watch. It didn’t have a tracker or anything on it. So it was all manual. And it required some fine tuning by dad before I could look through it. We built model rockets together and launched those later on.
I went to sort of local science camp during the summer, and started getting excited about computers and everything that had to do with science. So robots and engineering type problem solving. And so it just stayed with me my whole life.
Stacey Simms 2:45
Wow. So when you were diagnosed, not too many years later, you were 11. What happened? were you hoping to actually be an astronaut at that time?
April Blackwell 2:55
Yeah, so I i think that was always the pointy end of the spear for was to be an astronaut. And, you know, that’s when you watch TV and everything those, those are the people that you see. And so that was always kind of my final goal. When I was diagnosed at 11, it took a little bit of time for me to realize that, you know, astronaut was going to be more difficult now that I had type one diabetes. And some of that sort of came into focus later in my life. But at 11 it was kind of just heartbreaking. You know, I was watching launches and getting excited about space, but then knowing that that probably would never be a reality for me.
Stacey Simms 3:41
So at age 11, you know, I guess you have many choices, but you can say to yourself, well, that’s that I’ve got to find something else and be devastated or too bad. Or I’m going to move forward and do this some way somehow. Did that decision happened for you? immediately. Did it take some time for you to continue to love science the way you did?
April Blackwell 4:01
It definitely took some time. And I guess I’ll just touch on the fact that I think being diagnosed with diabetes at 11. Well, in the first place, there’s no great time to be diagnosed with diabetes. But I think being diagnosed at 11, it sort of puts you on this really fast trajectory towards adulthood. Because you want to maintain your independence as much as you can. My parents implemented it, such that I had to be able to give myself shots and test my own blood sugar before I could spend the night at a friend’s house, for instance. And so that was a big motivator for me. And I think, you know, maybe I always had a little bit of an inclination towards being a little older than what my physical age was. You can ask my mom I used to wake up early on Saturday mornings, to watch the news, not cartoons, just in the hopes that I might see you know, some information about NASA. But I think, you know, sort of that catalysts of putting me on a trajectory towards adulthood helped steer sort of my ideas about what I wanted to be in the future. And while I knew I could never be, or probably could never be an astronaut, space was so exciting to me and talking about rockets talking about, you know, low Earth orbit and traveling 17,500 miles an hour, five miles per second, thinking about these huge engines that need to take astronauts and supplies up to space, I just couldn’t get it out of my blood out of my brain. And so I decided that even if I couldn’t be an astronaut, I would love to work in the space program in some capacity. And that sort of led me to looking at an aerospace engineering degree.
Stacey Simms 5:54
All right, let’s go back for a second about your parents in the transition at age 11. What was your diagnosis story like, were you very sick for very long? I mean, I know we kind of sometimes we talk about it like and then you you didn’t have diabetes and then you did and then life went on. Can you kind of fill us in on on how you found out?
April Blackwell 6:13
Yeah. So it was, I guess nothing extremely remarkable about it, but maybe that’s why I should tell it is because, you know, there is this sort of the normal warning signs that everyone comes up or comes up against. And so it was kind of in the Christmas time frame, December timeframe. I just got a cold. And then, you know, my grandparents were in town for the holidays, and we usually would stay up late playing cards, and you know, eating Christmas candy, and I just, I couldn’t I just physically couldn’t I was extremely fatigued. And then when I started getting up multiple times during the night to go to the bathroom, you know, my mom bless her heart, thought that I was probably suffering from a urinary tract infection. And her old wives tales, of course, told her that we needed to treat this with the cranberries.
Unknown Speaker 7:14
April Blackwell 7:15
yeah, so. So we hit up the cranberry juice pretty hard for a little while, and it just wasn’t getting better. And so we started going to the pediatricians office. And it took almost a week of daily pediatrician visits. I, I joke to that I could just pee on command, because every time I would show up there, they would tell me to, you know, get a urine sample. So it sort of became this joke. And then I was finally diagnosed on December 30. And they told us that we needed to head over to the children’s hospital right away straight from the pediatrician’s office. We had no idea what diabetes was about at all. I absolutely had zero idea. I don’t think my parents really understood it at all. They were just scared. And so we had we went over to the Children’s Hospital, but unfortunately it was a sort of a skeleton crew because it was the holidays and New Year’s and stuff. So they told us to just go home. And it turned out that my old pediatrician, he actually lived next door to us. And so he came over for a couple days to help give me some insulin shots and test my blood sugar. While we still had no idea what you know, was to come more shots every single day and blood sugar tests every single day. So it was definitely a steep learning curve as I think most diagnosis stories are.
Stacey Simms 8:41
Yeah, it can just take so much time to get the diagnosis. I get so frustrated by that. But you know, at least they got it before it was even more devastating. Fast forward a few more years, you have kept your interest in space as you said, What did you wind up studying in college or did you go you know what, where did your path lead you to continue after high school.
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April Blackwell 9:01
Yeah, so I was very fortunate to get a full ride scholarship in state in Arizona, and because of my grades, so I went to Arizona State University and studied aerospace engineering. And then once I got out, I kind of hit a little bit of a roadblock because there was a period of time in the aerospace industry that the space shuttle was looking at being retired. And so the the future of NASA was a little bit unclear as to what was going to happen. So a lot of companies and related industry sort of put put a hold on hiring right around that time. Which was unfortunate but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I ended up getting a job working with the army of all things in Huntsville, Alabama. So I moved across the country. Free to work in a triple wide trailer we like to call it in Huntsville, Alabama, which just sounds so glamorous.
Unknown Speaker 10:10
Oh yeah, the stars all end up there.
April Blackwell 10:14
But it turned out to be a really great experience. So
Stacey Simms 10:17
did I also see somewhere where you were testing helicopters?
April Blackwell 10:22
Yeah. So that’s what I was doing for the army. And it was really awesome. It wasn’t it wasn’t quite space. But it was a really great way to get my feet wet on just what it means to be an engineer and what kind of engineering I personally like because there’s so many different avenues you can go with that degree. So I got to fly on experimental helicopters and boss test pilots around which was really fun. The group I was in actually was really tight knit and it I’d say even more so than my group at NASA Now. And part of that, I think is because, you know, you had to fill out paperwork that said, who in your group would go tell your spouse or your significant other that there had been an accident. And so we really counted on each other to to watch out for each other. And all of them absolutely supported me with my diabetes. You know, my flight suit had specific pockets with snacks and blood testers and stuff. And so we always kind of joked, like, oh, if you need a snack, April always has one in her left lower leg pocket or whatever.
Stacey Simms 11:42
Let me just jump in and ask. So when I said you were flying helicopters, I was gonna ask you how the heck did you get clearance to do that as a person with diabetes, but it was as a passenger?
April Blackwell 11:53
Correct. Yeah. So I flew on them not actually physically flying them, but it did still require FAA medical clearance which took about six, six months to get all of the paperwork in and get clearance to finally fly on the helicopter.
Stacey Simms 12:10
so that’s what I wanted to ask you about. Can you talk a little bit about doing this because it’s it sounds so exciting and I know so many young people who want to serve in the military or want to fly and Yep, we’ve just got, you know, the, in the United States, FAA says now you can be a commercial pilot with type one. So progress there. But right, what do you need to do, you know, as we’re going to talk about your path going forward, to kind of accomplish what you’ve done. You’ve mentioned medical screenings, things like that. You there’s just a lot is there a lot of paperwork and exams? I
April Blackwell 12:44
Yes, I will tell you it’s a little bit of a black box. Even now with the FAA ‘s new guidance. That type ones can apply for these waivers for class two and class one medicals. It’s not clear to me how many type ones they’ve actually accepted into those medical clearance buckets. That data is never published. And, in fact, the process to get a medical for me, like I said, took about six months. And it was really me going to an FAA Doctor who said, Hey, I can’t clear you because you have type one diabetes, I can check you for all the other stuff, but that’s going to require some special paperwork. So he sent in his recommendation, of course, I had to get letters and agency readings from my endocrinologist.
Initially, the paperwork I started with about a year’s worth of data. I sent that in and it took about three back and forth between me and basically a blackbox doctor in Washington DC at the FAA to finally get the amount of paperwork they wanted. And to be honest, I just got frustrated with The process and so I called my mom and dad back in Arizona, and I said, Hey, can you just run down to the Children’s Hospital and literally make copies of every single piece of paperwork that they have, since my diagnosis? Back then it was all paper, not, you know, digital, it was literally copies of these pieces of paper, you know, probably a three inch thick, you know, stack of papers, and I literally sent that into the FAA and I said, this is all the data that I have from my diagnosis, you know, X number of years ago, and I have nothing else to give you, basically, and they finally said, Okay, okay, that’s that’s enough. And they granted me clearance for one year. But it was it was a frustrating process and I haven’t tried to get another one.
You know, since moving to Houston because I do all of my medical clearance now through the NASA doctor so I can talk with them directly. There’s an actual face to face, but the FAA doctors are a little bit of an enigma I guess.
Stacey Simms 15:06
So I guess the lesson there if a parent is listening or if an adult with type one is listening is be persistent.
April Blackwell 15:13
Yes. If it’s something that you really want, you know, you’re going to find a way to overcome it and do it. And I just, I just always say, never give up and be a rule questioner because there are a lot of rules that are based on old data and old diabetes technology and management techniques. So it’s worth asking the question, because a lot of these doctors especially, you know, if you think military doctors and FAA doctors, they deal with really, almost perfect human specimens, if you will. And so they’re just, they just don’t have the knowledge of you know, what is going on in the diabetes sphere these days?
Stacey Simms 15:54
What an interesting thought, Yeah, why would they know because everybody is like GI Joe walking in.
Unknown Speaker 16:00
Stacey Simms 16:02
That’s a really interesting thought. Okay, so you’re, you’re, you’re in these experimental helicopters, you’re following your career. You’re in a triple wide in Huntsville. How’d you get to Mission Control?
April Blackwell 16:16
Yeah, it’s a great question. Um, I will say just before I leave the helicopters for a minute there in Huntsville, you know, I had this opportunity to sort of push a lot of barriers that type one diabetics came up with against because the military doesn’t allow type ones, you know, that were previously diagnosed at least right now. And so I got to go through the altitude chamber, the helicopter dunker trainer, which is basically two days of being drowned alive. And I went through the parachute course. And all of these required talking with doctors and just explaining the situation to them because they literally don’t deal with type 1 diabetic patients, because that’s a disqualification right off the bat. And all of them were super receptive, super open to it.
My military friends supported me going and talking to them and coming up with plans. So you know, we would come up with a plan, like we’re going to leave your pump on till we get to this pressure, and then we’re going to take it off and leave it outside of the altitude chamber, you know, and that’s going to be 15 minutes. So make sure your blood sugar is at least 130 at that time, or whatever it is, you know, but it was a really great way to sort of break down those barriers. And I even included a two week course at the Naval Test Pilot School, in Pax river, Maryland. So that was a really kind of culmination of all these, you know, sort of barriers that I had overcome and a way to, you know, sort of solidify that I was on the right path.
Stacey Simms 17:54
That’s fantastic. Wow. And that’s great to have that support from the people around you. I love to hear that.
April Blackwell 18:00
Yeah, they were really great.
Stacey Simms 18:02
You get, you get dunked, that sounds so enjoyable. I mean, I know you and I, it sounds like we have very similar personalities and enjoy a lot of the same activities (laughs)
April Blackwell 18:11
Unknown Speaker 18:14
Tell me about what led you then to your position at NASA?
April Blackwell 18:17
Yeah. So from my my helicopter job, I was doing a lot of traveling around two weeks every month I was gone. And for a newly married person, it was just a little bit hard on the family so started looking for, you know, some other opportunities and found these jobs pop up in Mission Control. And I had absolutely no inkling that I would even get called to interview for them. But it turned into, you know, this flight test experience that I had, working on the helicopter as well. Well, it sounds completely different, actually was a lot of the same skill set that they look for in flight control. rollers. And so that sort of, you know, allowed that door to be open to get an interview at NASA. And of course, I ended up falling in love with it. I mean, it was job working at the home of manned spaceflight and now crude spaceflight with women, you know, joining in and getting to work in such a historic building like Mission Control. And you know, I’m even going there tonight I’m working this evening, that evening surf to fly the International Space Station. So it’s, it’s just really a dream come true.
Stacey Simms 19:33
Okay. I have chills as you’re talking about controlling the International Space Station. The the setup, I just want to take a moment because I think we all do know what Mission Control and flight control you know, what it looks like and what you do, but and correct me if I’m wrong here, but what we’re talking about is what we see in all those movies. Right. When you know when they say Houston, we have a problem your Houston I mean, you were that big room, right? Yes. The diagram was all the guys in the white short sleeve t shirts and the glasses from the movies that we’ve seen all these years. That’s Mission Control.
April Blackwell 20:07
Exactly a skinny tie and a pocket protector. We don’t smoke anymore and missing control. Yeah, but if you get in the elevator it’s in, it’s in the same building so that the room for instance, if you’ve seen the movie, Apollo 13, the room that that movie was based on is actually just one floor up from our current International Space Station control room. And so when you get in the elevators, I always joke it’s sort of this aroma of like 1960s cigarettes and coffee mixed together. But that’s just the way missing control smells and it’s, it’s hard to describe.
Stacey Simms 20:47
Alright, so when you’re going to work tonight, and you know, controlling the International Space Station, tell us what that really means. I mean, do you mind breaking it down a little bit? What are you going to be doing? I mean, in Yeah, I understand.
April Blackwell 21:00
Absolutely. It’s not that hard. So basically, you know, we sit at a big console that has several computers, we monitor a lot of telemetry data coming down from the space station all the time. And it uses a satellite constellation to make sure that we can get our data even when they’re on the other side of the world. So we look at that data, we make decisions based on that data. If we see any anomalies, we may send commands up to the vehicle. And then on certain days or nights, you know, there may be a big event like a docking or undocking, maybe a spacewalk.
And on those days, you know, it’s our
job is even a little bit more critical because we’ll be sending lots of commands and making sure that the space station is performing. Its absolute best to make sure we don’t have any anomalies where maybe there’s another vehicle really close by, so
Stacey Simms 22:00
Have you ever had an experience that was kind of frightening is the right word, but you know, where, where someone or or a mission was in jeopardy.
April Blackwell 22:13
Um, I’ve had a few
kind of small anomalies happen. I haven’t been on console for anything very major. But that doesn’t mean that major things haven’t happened. This was, you know, hasn’t lined up with my console shifts. But it’s interesting because even when when stuff happens when you aren’t on console, you sort of have this adrenaline because you know what that person sitting in the seat is feeling, you know, the whole lead up to being a flight controller. It’s not like you’re hired and the next day here on console, we call it almost a second master’s degree. So you have about two years of training. About a year, a little over a year of that is sort of bookwork so you’re learning a lot of information about that. The system we control, and you’re taking oral examinations. And then the next piece of it is simulation. So we actually simulate, you know, really bad days, days that are worse than any any days, we’ve actually seen real time. And this is all to prepare you for that prioritization skill of being a flight controller and being able to work through stress. stressful situation. So we always joke that, you know, one small anomaly in the real room feels like 5050 anomalies, you know, in the simulation room, and that’s just how we have to train ourselves to be able to cope with that stress. Wow.
Stacey Simms 23:44
What is the best part of it for you? Is it walking into that building? Is it knowing that you know that elevator is there and you’re part of all that history? Is it just you know, logging in for the day I’m curious what you know what gets you still very excited about this? Because obviously You are?
April Blackwell 24:02
Yeah, so I’d say there’s kind of two pieces of it, there’s sort of a physical, almost just, you know, like chemical response, when you cross the threshold into Mission Control, you know, you have to swipe your badge like five times, you know, to get in the building, and then get in the room and all this stuff. So when you cross that threshold, it really is like, you’re just leaving all your other problems and everything else that you’ve thought about that day, outside, because you need to focus. And you need to bring your best self, you know, in here, because there are literally at least six humans on board that are counting on you to take care of them and take care of their spaceship. And then as you sit down, we have what we call big boards and the friends so they’re like these big projection screens and we’re always getting video down from the space station, usually in about six channels. And we call it the windowless room with the best view because the view is just incredible. I mean We now have these HD cameras on board. And as you’re flying my favorite place to fly over the sort of the Mediterranean Sea, and just the colors juxtapose there with like the desert sand and Africa, it’s, it’s just incredible. And without actually being an astronaut, I feel like it’s close to being the next best thing. And then the second part is sort of what you were talking about the history, you know, in this in that very building just one floor up is where the controller sat when we landed on the moon. And they worked through problems real time, you know, to tell the astronauts what to do. And these were people that had computers with much less computing power than our iPhones today. And they were very young. If you look at any of the documentaries and everything, these were like 20 something kids fresh out of college, you know, space, there wasn’t as much history then. So it’s hard to you know, lead your whole life thinking you’re going to be working in space. It’s like something you just thrust upon you basically. And they were able to overcome all of that and be able to land man on the moon. It just, it still blows my mind today, even when I walk in that building. Wow,
Stacey Simms 26:17
that’s amazing. So does Type One Diabetes on your job? Do you mind telling us a little bit about your routine? Because there’s some very long shifts, lots of pressure, you know, you can’t exactly take a lot of breaks, I would assume. Can you talk a little bit about how you manage it?
April Blackwell 26:32
Yeah. Um, so I mentioned before that we’re constantly monitoring telemetry from the space station. And as type one diabetics, we’re kind of used to that already. Actually, we constantly monitor telemetry coming from our own bodies. I use a CGM. So I set that in a prominent place. And it is just become part of my scan pattern. I scan all of the data that I’m looking at Looking for anomalies. And then I also glanced over at my CGM, and just make sure that I’m trending the way I want to be trending. And generally on console, I’ll keep my blood sugar a little bit higher. So try to avoid going below about 120 or so just because I know if at any moment something could hit, basically. And so, you know, I don’t want to have that rush of adrenaline drop me really low. So I try to keep it a little bit higher. I always have snacks in the control room, we’re allowed to eat, you know, as you mentioned, they are long Fest, so you usually have a meal that you eat while you’re there. And then all of the flight directors also know that I have type one, that’s not a requirement or anything, but I think as a member of their team, it’s important that they know that’s something that I’m also monitoring and so it may require that I you know, step out for a quick two minutes to go grab a snack or, you know, do a little Check or change the site even I’ve had to do that at work. And so I think just being really candid and open and and, you know, open to answering any questions that they have is really important in sort of these high stress jobs like this.
Stacey Simms 28:19
And a while back, I interviewed Ernie Prato, who also works at NASA and also lives with type one. And I know you know each other.
Unknown Speaker 28:27
I don’t, this is gonna sound so weird. So I just kind of a mom question. So I’m sorry for asking it. But like, do you guys see each other at work? Do you check in with each other? I mean, I know not everybody with type one. Diabetes has to be friends. But the mom and me is kind of hoping that you support each other.
April Blackwell 28:44
Yeah, so it’s funny that you mentioned Ernie because
we sort of have this unofficial Johnson Space Center Type One Diabetes club and Ernie actually sits in Completely different building off site. He sits over at the airport now. So I don’t see him daily, but we have sort of instant messaging capability and so will frequently talk on there. And we have another friend who actually works in the search and rescue area. So he’s doing a lot of cool things with the military in order to get our astronauts safely home after they land. And so it’s really fun we all meet and you know, you think we would like talk about space and stuff because that’s what we do. But we always end up just talking about our diabetes and what devices were using which ones are you know, giving us trouble which ones were low on supplies for, if anyone’s tried to like, you know, come up with engineer way to make something work better or whatever. So it’s really fun to sort of have that outlet and especially at work with kind of like minded people.
Unknown Speaker 30:01
I’m glad I asked
Stacey Simms 30:05
what do you think would be next for you? Do you have other goals within what you’re doing now? I mean, what you’re doing now is so exciting. And I would assume you would want to do this forever. But are there other things that you would like to accomplish that you’re working on?
April Blackwell 30:18
Oh, that’s a loaded question.
There’s so many things. Right now, I think my focus is just to you know, be the best engineer I can at work. And then I also have two little kids. So I
Unknown Speaker 30:33
yes, I want
April Blackwell 30:35
a three and a half and a one and a half year old. So they are taking a lot of my energy right now. And I think that’s totally fine. That’s, that’s the season I’m in and so I want to be able to enjoy that. And so I think as far as my career goes, and everything, I definitely still have that astronaut dream out there. And I think there are opening up some new ways To be able to make that happen, and if not for me, then definitely the next generation of diabetics or maybe, you know, if we come up with a cure, then the non diabetics. But I’m really excited to see where that goes. And then I, I think, also just kind of spreading this message that you know, even if you perceive that there’s a something that could hold you back as a type one diabetic, make sure that you are asking questions because it may not always be a hard know, and you sort of need to figure out what it is that is really keeping you from doing those things.
Stacey Simms 31:36
I don’t want to get too personal, but I know a lot of listeners will be interested. You know, when you have type one. There are a lot of concerns about having children. I mean, less so today, but you have to do so much work, it seems to me, you know, was it? Gosh, you seem like such a disciplined person anyway. And again, I don’t want to pry but healthy pregnancies you did okay. You said you had a CGM. Do you mind sharing a little bit about that? Yeah,
April Blackwell 32:01
um, so I actually don’t get this question very often, I think because everyone’s so focused on the NASA and space scope, but I’m really happy to share it because I think it is important. It’s not something that a lot of women talk about.
So, yes, I had two kids, three and a half and a one and a half, one and a half year old now. The first was a girl and everything went really, really well.
I was induced, and that was sort of just my ob was being a little cautious with having diabetes and making sure I didn’t go too long. And so I was induced, which turned into like a 40 plus hour labor, which was unfortunate. But everything turned out just fine. And she has a lot of attitude now. So something worked there. My son, so he’s just about 18 months now, a little bit different flavor of pregnancy. As weird as that sounds. He had a lot of fluid around him while I was pregnant. So I gained a lot more weight. And I was just generally uncomfortable because I felt like my stomach was literally just gonna like burst open, it was so, so stretched out. And he ended up being a C section baby and he was over nine pounds. And that was again early induced about 38 weeks, so to completely different pregnancies. I had good control through both and you know, all of the non stress tested all of that when we’re going well, and it just turned into a little bit of a different labor situation with my son so but I have two awesome Healthy Kids now and they do take a lot of my energy It’s interesting because you know, my daughter being three and a half, she understands I have these sort of extra devices hooked to me. Console, she, she knows the word diabetes, she knows the word pump, she knows that sometimes I eat her applesauce pouch when I’m low and we’re at the playground. Because that has happened before. Sure. And my son is still you know, he’s just, he isn’t quite to the point of communicating those feelings yet. So he’ll touch my site, and I’ll tell him No, you know, but it’s just interesting seeing how they react to it. And I think in a way it will hopefully make them more empathetic to you know, friends or people in the future that they come across and this is just a normal part of life. And you know, everyone has something they’re dealing with, I think, you know, Type One Diabetes happens to be mine, but everyone has something and so keeping an open mind and judging people based on devices or things that they see right off the bat I think is really important.
Stacey Simms 35:07
Do you mind if I ask what devices you use? But pumping CGM?
April Blackwell 35:11
Sure I use the tandem.
x to polymer and sex sex. com g sex ctm. So I get that data right on the pump, which was really nice.
Yeah, I like both of them’s though. I’m a big fan. Before
Stacey Simms 35:30
I let you go, you know, this is kind of a tough question for you to answer. But your mom and dad, you were 11 when you were diagnosed, you shared this love of space and science with your father. Your you have an incredible career. You have two children, they must have been worried during the pregnancy. You know, have you had a conversation with them about Wow, did you ever think after that diagnosis where I would be today?
April Blackwell 35:55
Oh man, we’ve had a lot of conversation about this.
Yeah, it’s it’s very cyclical. I think for us, you know, when I was growing up, I would definitely have months where I was not literally diabetes high, but just high on life and really excited and full of energy. And then I definitely had points where I was really low and upset that I had diabetes. You know, the one person that I knew that really wanted to be an astronaut, and literally couldn’t because of this disease, you know, somehow I was chosen to have this disease, of course. So I went through all those emotions and those feelings and my parents were always there. They always supported my dream. And they really stressed to me the importance of working hard. And I will tell you, engineering is hard work. And it is hard to get through engineering school, even if you’re really passionate about it. And so that support was priceless. I know my mom, you know, see Susan emotional person. And I think she was sometimes afraid that I wouldn’t be able to sort of realize some of these dreams. And it’s so great. Now, you know, I’m in my early 30s and I have my dream job. And I send her picture hers, you know, for Mission Control probably every week, just because I think it’s really cool. And, you know, seeing her and the being able to decipher that, hey, like, we made it together. It’s not it’s not just me. I mean, they did so much to help me and my poor Mom, you know, she’s, she’s not the most most into space, but she like dragged herself to those space museums that me and my dad wanted to go to Oh, man. Sometimes she would be doing her crocheting over in the corner. So bless her heart. She was such a trooper. through all of that, but I think it’s really important now to, for her to see, you know, these moments in my life. And now she gets to share those with other people that she meets that, you know, maybe they’ve just had a diagnosis like this, or they know someone going through an issue that’s, you know, putting up some barriers and she can say like, hey, look like we got through it. It’s totally doable. I think that’s the key, it’s doable, and it’s going to be tough. But if you want something, you need to just go for it, and it’ll absolutely work out. So we’ve just sort of on and off had those conversations, you know, let’s see, I’ve had diabetes for 20 years now. So the last 20 years, I would say there’s been conversations like that
throughout the whole time. Wow.
Stacey Simms 38:48
Well, that that’s great. I’m so glad that you’ve had this conversation with your parents, you know, as a as a mom have a son who is figuring out what he wants to do, you know, and we don’t want diabetes to hold him back. Don’t mind saying I find your story incredibly inspirational. So April, thank you so much for joining me. And, you know, I’ll be following you on Instagram and elsewhere and looking for those pictures of Mission Control and everything. Thanks for joining me
April Blackwell 39:13
so much more about April at diabetes dash connections come and I’m going to talk about her had a really emotional reaction to something. I’ll share that in just a moment but first…
Diabetes Connections is brought to you by Dexcom. And you know when you have a toddler diagnosed with type one like we did, you hear rumblings for a long time about the team years, but when it hit us at full force a little early, I was so glad we had Dexcom early. I was so glad we had Dexcom Benny’s insulin needs started going way up around age 11. And frankly, they continue to go up and told, I think they started topping out about age 14 really just late last year. And you know, those hormones, swings, everything we had to do all the adjustments we’ve made. I cannot imagine managing diabetes during this crazy time. Without the Dexcom continuous glucose monitoring system. We can react more quickly to highs and lows, see trends adjust insulin doses with advice from our endo. I know using the Dexcom g six has really helped improve Benny’s A1C and overall health. If your glucose alerts and readings from the G6 do not match symptoms or expectations, use a blood glucose meter to make diabetes treatment decisions. To learn more just go to diabetes dash connections calm and click on the Dexcom logo
before I move on from April Blackwell, in her terrific story, I just want to share one more thing. So when I, when I talked to all the guests, I always grab pictures of them, right? You see that on social media, when we put the episodes out or at the episode homepage, there’s usually a picture of a product or the person or you know, the crux of what we’re talking about. And often they email me photos, but sometimes I scroll through just to kind of see which one I’d want. Then I can say, Hey, can I grab that one picture or whatever. So I was doing that with April. And I came across, and I’ll see if I can get her permission to share this in the Facebook group. She has a picture of herself dressed as an astronaut. And that picture is from about and that picture is from, you know, she was diagnosed, she was diagnosed at the end of December. So it’s Halloween. I mean, it’s just really a couple of weeks before she was diagnosed and seeing her as a little girl, knowing what she wanted to do, and knowing where she is now. And just I guess I could have been sad about it because I got very emotional. And I guess the reaction could have been, oh, it’s too bad that you didn’t get to be that astronaut but my reaction Was this? I mean, I really got emotional, it’s kind of embarrassing. Was this, this swell of admiration, I’m not sure I’d be that strong, whether I was 11 years old or, you know, an adult, to be able to turn that situation into what she has been able to do with it. You know, and as she mentioned with Ernie Prado, who also works at NASA, and you don’t have to be a you know, an aerospace engineer, to just kind of overcome what type one throws at you. And I think that’s what happened when I saw that photo. I just thought, gosh, you’re all of you.. All of you just have to be strong. You know, even if you don’t feel strong, you kind of have to be you kind of have to be and yes, parents too, but it’s a different kind of strong for us, right. That’s a that’s a different story altogether. So I’ll see if April will let me post the photo and I wonder if you’ll have the same reaction that I did. Foot boy What a great story and I can’t wait to follow along with her. It’s nerdy April I’ll link it up in the show notes on her Instagram account
on her Instagram account
all right time for Tell me something good brought to you by our friends at real good foods. And this one is real good foods. And I know it’s a podcast and I shouldn’t be saying things like you got to see the picture. But you got to see the picture. And I will post it in the Facebook group. I will be posting it later this week on Instagram as we start posting the Tell me something good stuff. But Amanda lovely. posted a photo of her kids celebrating what they call their last Lantus party. And she says the reason they were having a party, Annika, who is her daughter with type one is 10. It burns right Lantus burns a lot of people if you’re not familiar, this is a long acting insulin. This is a commonly used long acting insulin. And Amanda said that Anika isn’t a fan. This was a big moment. The picture shows as they’re having their last Lantus party, Anika with two of her siblings in party hats. party hats, so it’s Nina and chi and they are hugging her and everybody looks like they’re having a It looks like a birthday party. I mean, it’s really cute. And apparently Malin, who is five but not in the photo was also wearing a party hat. party hat and the dog was as well but not pictured Amanda, you got to send us a picture of the dog. But they were really excited and supporting their sister, which is why this is the Tell me something good. Not so much about the pump start although I’m sure she appreciated that and that’s fun too. But, too, but it’s always just so nice to see a family kind of get behind each other, right? I mean, gotta have that kind of support.
And I will say that if Lantus burns, you or your child know that there are long acting alternatives, not just switching to an insulin pump. And by the way, Amanda make sure you save some of that long acting just in case you have pump issues, right? You know, you never want to have no long acting on hand, just in case talk to your endo. But if you’re having an issue with Lantus, ask about switching, there are other long acting’s out there that don’t burn as much and that work differently, but that’s definitely an endo level decision. Do you have a Tell me something good story. It can be anything from a diversity a milestone of a last Lantus party. We have lots of fun stuff to share. And I love telling your good stories. You can always email me Stacey at diabetes dash connections. com or post in the Facebook group message me, you know, send a carrier pigeon, whatever works for you. We will be sharing these pretty far and wide this year. And I’d love to hear your story.
With the time shifting nature of podcasting, as I’ve mentioned before, you know, sometimes and recording before things are happening that I want to talk about, and then they’ll the show airs afterwards. And all of that to say, a lot of you’ve been following along with Benny, who has been on crutches for six weeks. And as I am taping this, he is hopefully getting the word in the next couple of days that he can be off crutches, and maybe start some physical therapy. So next week, I hope to tell you a little bit more about that. And we’re also going to the endo, which is a really good time for me to interview Benny because we’re alone in the car and we’re in the same space for once because that kid is so busy, I don’t even see him half the time. But I’m going to try to talk to him about control IQ in the last year and lots of things changes he’s made. Control IQ and things that have gone on since we’ve last talked we’ve made some other changes. And you know, he’s just a different kid than he was even a year ago which is kind of breaking my heart and kind of fantastic but Boy, it’s been it’s been a big year for him. I don’t know about you. But when my kids went from middle school to high school, it wasn’t it wasn’t just a different school. It was like a different life. High School is very different. The schedule is different. The work is different. And I remember with my daughter, who is now a freshman in college, and as you’re listening is going back to school next week to do her second semester there. It just flies by it goes by so quickly. So I’m trying to hang on for dear life. And hopefully Benny will will talk to me talk to you, and we’ll get him on the show as well. Tons of events coming up. I’m not even going to run down the list. I will ask you though, to go to the community page at diabetes dash connections calm. You can see where we’ve been where we’re going. I’ve got a kind of a de facto book tour, because I am the world’s worst diabetes mom, which is taking me on the road right now but two events a month. You can see them on the community page and see if I’m coming to your town. And if not, and you’d like me to come speak or tape a podcast or whatever. Just let me know.
Just let me know. Next week, just let me know. Alright, later this week we have our second minisode. This one’s going to be all about sleep overs. What worked for us, I had some questions about that. And I’m answering them. So we’re gonna be talking about sleep overs. That episode will air on Thursday, January 9, and then our next regular interview episode will be next Tuesday. Thank you, Tuesday. It’s gonna take me a little time to fall into the rhythm of this, but I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun. Let me know what you think. As always, the show is here for you. Thanks, as always, to my editor, John Bukenas from audio editing solutions, and thank you so much for listening. I’m Stacey Simms, and I’ll see you back here on Thursday.
Transcribed by otter.ai