An Opportunity, Not an Obstacle

When I first decided to interview Morgan Panzirer, it was about half way through reading her book Actually, I Can (T1D Media, available on Amazon). The title of this article,
An Opportunity, Not an Obstacle, is a rule Morgan Panzirer lives by. I truly wanted to find out if the author of the book I was reading, was as captivating in real life, and as grounded, as she appears in her book. Turns out the book, as good as it is, doesn’t do justice speaking to the author in person. I know this, I have not met many twenty-somethings in my life like Morgan Panzirer.

Almost anyone in the diabetes community knows the name David Panzirer (if you don’t, you should) as he is a grandson of Leona Helmsley and was appointed as a Trustee upon her passing in 2007. The amount of money the Helmsley trust has given to diabetes organizations, research, and causes, is incredibly astronomical. I share this because it’s important you know this in the context of my interview, below, with Morgan. When I picked up the book I knew it was by the daughter of, argumentatively, one of the most influential individual funders to diabetes causes in the last fifty years.

My interview was just she and I.

What I got was a young woman; an extremely kind, articulate, sharp, young woman living with diabetes sharing what that is like; and she is a woman who is on a mission. What I got was a man who, through the eyes of his daughter, is a dad. What I got is a family who undergoes all of the life any family with two kids living with diabetes, must face every day.

We need influential people to help continue funding our diabetes causes but we also need to always remember that at the end of the day, we are all just families living with a disease and being part of a club no one wants to be part of. The difference is in those families who choose to make a difference, and as far as the Panzirer Family is concerned;
Actually, they Do!

DD (Diabetesdad): Thank you for taking the time to talk.  When young people do something in spite and despite diabetes, and do it as well as you did with the book, it was very moving for me.  My own kids have done much, and I love seeing when young people do something to help others.  I loved, loved, love your book.

MP (Morgan Panzirer):  Thank you very much. 

DD: When were you diagnosed?

MP: I was diagnosed March 22nd, 2007 at the age of 6 and am now 20.

DD: When did you start the idea of writing a book.

MP: It actually did not start out as a book.  I always wrote and wrote about things important to me.  When I was diagnosed I wrote about living with T1D.  How I felt, what frustrated me.  I would write when I had a good day, a bad day, just life.  I wrote through middle school and was unsure where the writings would go, and in 10th grade I just shut it down, unsure what I would do with these writings……they sat on my computer.  My senior year in high school, I came across it again and I gave it to my teacher and asked her if she thought anything was there?  She read it.  She loved it. From there we worked together, edited it more, continued and finished it, and the rest is history.  We bought it to a publisher and after about 9 months, the book was ready to go.  In total it was about a year and half from when I started.

DD: Now that you look back on it, so much has changed in our world from COVID to so much more.  Would you change or add anything?

MP: Great question.  So much happened as I transitioned to college.  Being on my own for the first time, there were certainly challenges with that and moving forward for my first two years in college.  I would write about my experiences coming here, to Villanova, and the adjustment…….and it was an adjustment.

DD: …..and your dream?

MP: To become an endocrinologist.

DD: Let’s go back to the moment you were diagnose and you realized life would change as it has for so many. In as bad as that must have been, and as you look back and recognize that change, was there anything else in your life that you can remember, that also changed your life……not being about diabetes.

MP: Another really good question.  There certainly have been times when I absolutely realized that life could, and was about to, just change on a dime.  My Great Uncle, who was like a father-figure to my dad, was fine one day, had some trouble with his vision, had an MRI, and 9 months later he was gone from brain cancer.  Life is just so fragile. We just cannot take any day for granted because we just don’t know.

DD: So, as you went through this particular tragedy, this horrendous tragedy, did you find yourself saying; “Wow, I got this (dealing with diabetes)” comparing the tragedy you were dealing with?

MP: Totally, 100 percent.  It’s funny you said that because for years my siblings and I would shop for Christmas presents for kids in children’s hospital.  And we would go and deliver these gifts.  One year, about two years after I was diagnosed, I remember walking around the hospital delivering gifts and I turned to my parents and said, “My diabetes is nothing compared to this.”
Now to be clear, I’m not minimizing what it’s like to live with diabetes, and I know how serious it is, but just walking through the children’s ward it was just eye opening on how much so many have to deal with as well.  I can handle what I have.

DD: Let’s touch on that for a minute.  It’s like a two-edged sword as you, my kids, and others don’t look like those in a St. Jude’s commercial.  Encouraging our kids to live life to the fullest, a commercial is not going to move people like a puppy in a cage to help.  What would you do, given the chance, to tell the story about what it’s like to live with this disease?  To get others to help….with funding a cure, education, whatever the cause, but to somehow help the diabetes community?  How would you walk that line and get that message of getting those to help, and at the same time show the world that people with T1D can do great things…….like even becoming a pediatric endocrinologist?  How do we move people?

MP: I think the only true way, is to somehow show a ‘day in the life of….’.  One truly does not understand unless they live with it, or it is in their household and they see it first-hand.  The balance of living life while tending to blood sugars and everything diabetes is an ongoing and never-ending situation.  That the management and living with it impacts every other single thing done throughout the day needs to be shown. I think how to do that in a minute or so public service announcement would be a real challenge.

DD:  Your sister, Caroline, who is three years younger than you, was also diagnosed about three years ago.  Share about that day.

MP: She was enrolled in a clinical trial and she was showing all of the auto-antibodies so we kind of knew it might be coming.  But we surely did not know when.  After watching me my entire life, being told that it was probably going to happen at some point, I believe, is tougher that when it’s a complete surprise.  When she was diagnosed, my chief concern, and goal, was what could I do to help during this transition.  I know how challenging it is, I wanted to help her understand.  Thinking of ways, I could be there and support her during that time.

DD: Did you feel almost an obligation to nurture her and help her along?

MP: Yes, completely.  She is a very, very, good lacrosse player.  To help her manage her diabetes so she could continue that became very important to me.  To give her suggestion on balancing those blood sugars, as much as she would allow me.

DD: My daughter, and her younger brother, both have diabetes and Kaitlyn speaks to her brother in ways I could never do.  Do you find that you can say things to Caroline about diabetes that your mom and dad couldn’t?

(Morgan laughs)

MP: Absolutely. 

DD: One of the many stories I found interesting was when your mom went for a run, ran into Martha Stewart, came back home, and shortly thereafter, you’re on the way to the studio to be on the show.  Can you share that story?

MP: My mom is a big runner and she runs with her friend.  I was pretty young but I remember that Martha Steward lived pretty close to us, and they were running on a dirt road, and Martha was on one of her horses, and they all began a conversation. Somehow, which is not so uncommon, my mom talked about me dealing with diabetes and Martha was pretty taken about our journey and said we should be on the show.  My mom came home and said, “Hey, guess who I ran into today?”
One thing led to another and my mom said one day, “You’ll be missing school today we are going to be on a television show.”  We went into the studio and of course one of my most vivid memories was my mom sobbing on camera.  I was probably 7 or 8.  But we did the show, a chance to teach others.

DD:  I deal, meet, and know many, many people in the diabetes community and you have a gift many people would like to have.  Your positive attitude is so evident in your life.  Why is that?

MP: I think, in part, it is the timing of my diagnosis.  Kids are resilient.  I was extremely frustrated, at a young age, when I was diagnosed.  But it was here.  I had choices to make on how it would impact me and my life.  I remember actually thinking, “Well, I’m not going to get out of this, so I might as well make the best of it.”  I’m not so sure I would have the same attitude if I was diagnosed in my teen-age years.  I knew there was no choice and my nature growing up was not a pity party and walking around with my head down.  I have things I want to do.  I want to get to the things that I want to do.  My attitude of I’m just going to deal with what comes my way, really got me through.

DD:  I have to ask you.  It’s just so very clear that your family has been extremely fortunate and have provided incredible opportunity for you.  Your mom and dad have worked hard and I have to share, nowhere does it come across the life style you have had.  You make it clear that you understand the life you‘ve been given.  And, yet, nowhere in the book, with the exception of sharing a few meetings with some known people (The Pope, Presidents, Celebrities) did I feel for one second that ‘privileged attitude’ and quite honestly, the ability you have to stay grounded in the world around you is almost envious, why is that do you think?

MP: A really good question again.  An honest ask. Yes, I do know but I have never thought I was, or wanted to be, better than anyone else.  I think everyone around you, has a story to tell.  I love meeting new people.  I’m well aware that what you first see in someone is not always what you get.  People could be going through horrible times behind closed doors and we would have no idea.  I’m open to new people and chatting a conversation is something I enjoy doing, with anyone.

DD: You stated already that your mom and dad made sure that giving back was part of the family dynamic.

MP: From the time I was a child.

DD: I like to close my interviews with a little thing I created.  I will say a word or a phrase, tell me the first things that pops into your head, either a single word or a short phrase.  Ready?

MP: Yes.  I think it’s a bit scary…….
(Both of us laugh)

DD: Speaking in Public?

MP: Nerve racking.

DD: Diabetes?

MP: Frustrating.

DD: Pope Francis (whom she met)?

MP: Incredible.

DD: Gideon (her horse)?

MP: Love. (Laughs)

DD: Dealing with a blood sugar reaction during an activity?

MP: One of the most frustrating things ever.

DD: Karen Zlotnick (Morgan’s high school English Teacher)?

MP: An influential part in getting the book out.

DD: Cure?

MP: Hopefully in my life time.

DD: Management tools?

MP: They have come so far in just the 14 years since I was diagnosed.

DD: Mom and Dad?

MP: The most supportive parents I could ever ask for.

DD: Caroline and Luke?

MP: Always keep me grounded and we have a lot of fun together.

DD: I am hoping that my tomorrow will be………what?

MP: (thinks for a moment) Will be filled with whatever I want it to be.

DD: Thank you very much for your time.  I have stated before that your family is so special to me in how you all have impacted the diabetes world around us.  From your dad’s no-nonsense approach to moving the needle, to all of you; and the way you support each other.  The way that you, your mom, and how you all are not afraid to share your story so others may learn is inspiring. I thank you for your time.

MP:  Thank you, I truly enjoyed this.

Morgan meeting the Pope

I am a diabetes dad.
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