Medical Hero Spotlight: Phyllis Kaplan & Type 1 Diabetes

Written by: Melissa Daley | mdaley@ciscrp.org

Phyllis has a vague recollection of waking up in a hospital with tubes attached to her body, and a distinct memory of saying, “Take the tubes out!” At the age of two, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease, typically diagnosed in childhood, but can manifest at any age. Diabetes has led Phyllis on a path from patient to advocate to clinical research participant.

“I have been an advocate since I was 12 years old. It started in junior high school, in a gym class when the teacher made me take off my medical alert bracelet, due to a ‘no jewelry in gym class’ rule,” says Phyllis. When she went to retrieve the medical bracelet from the gym locker after class, she discovered it had been stolen. This incident spurred Phyllis to write a letter to the town superintendent of schools, demanding its replacement and a change in the rule to allow medical-related items to be worn. By the time the letter had been delivered, the bracelet had been anonymously returned to the school’s lost & found box. Phyllis was allowed to wear the bracelet moving forward.

The most important thing to understand about type 1 diabetes, says Phyllis, is, “The patient or caregiver has to make so many decisions about the disease, every day with no break. With diabetes, every day is different.”

Type 1 diabetes develops quickly. The body’s immune system attacks and destroys beta cells in the pancreas that create insulin. The body cannot produce insulin without these beta cells. Insulin is a peptide hormone that helps your body metabolize fats, proteins and carbohydrates through glucose (a type of sugar) that is released into the bloodstream when you eat food. The glucose is then absorbed from the blood in the liver, fat and skeletal muscle cells. Type 2 diabetes develops more slowly, over time. The body produces insulin, but cannot use it effectively.

Decisions about how much medication to take are based on many variables including food, exercise, change in weather, change in personal schedule, and stress.

“That’s why education is so important,” says Phyllis. “If I am going to exercise, I have to plan ahead, at least a couple of hours before, as exercise impacts blood sugar. There are so many hidden things to know about diabetes that impact your decisions.”

Phyllis has participated in four clinical trials: two for rescue medications for severe hypoglycemia and one for a medical device. “As a longtime advocate, I felt that participating in a clinical trial was the ultimate form of advocacy,” Phyllis explains.

“The trials were very different from each other,” says Phyllis. “Two of the three were very easy. One involved two full days in clinic, and that was really hard, with nine hours of ongoing blood tests. Those were physically difficult days, but worth it. The other two clinical trials were less invasive.”

When considering the two-day, in-clinic trial, Phyllis and her husband reviewed the protocol together. “I wouldn’t participate without consulting him,” says Phyllis. He accompanied her to the two in-clinic days, to be with her during the nine hours of ongoing tests and to lend additional support.

When asked if she faced any concerns from family or friends about her clinical research participation, Phyllis says, “No, quite the opposite. People were really interested in the ‘why’ of what I was doing and what the outcomes were.” Phyllis didn’t seek any advice from patient advocacy organizations, because of her own experience as an advocate. She is a brand ambassador with Medtronic Diabetes to share her experience with their medical device, and also volunteers with JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) and ADA (American Diabetes Association).

Phyllis advises individuals considering clinical research participation to “Ask all the questions you have when meeting with the nurse/study lead. No question is too silly. Read the protocol and informed consent, which can be confusing. Use a highlighter to mark items in the protocol or use Post-its to make notes. Keep asking questions throughout the course of the study. At times the research staff may not always be patient-centric, and if you’re not getting the answers to your questions, ask to speak with someone else on the study team. Be your own best advocate and keep pushing. Researchers are not always prepared to answer patients’ questions. If something doesn’t sit well with you, voice it.”

Phyllis’ advocacy work has also led her to CISCRP, where she is Senior Manager, Events & Community Engagement. CISCRP’s mission to inform and engage patients and the public about the importance of clinical research resonated with her. Phyllis leads CISCRP’s Aware for All free clinical research educational programs, which have pivoted from in-person, city-specific events to regional, virtual programs with the advent of the pandemic. You can learn more about AWARE for All here.

Her experience as a clinical trial participant has strengthened Phyllis’ commitment in sharing information about the importance of clinical trials to everyone. Phyllis is adamant and passionate about participating in clinical research again if the opportunity presents itself, reiterating, “Absolutely. Without clinical trials, new treatments can’t happen, and without clinical trial participants, clinical trials can’t happen.”

To search for medical conditions in a specific location, visit our Search Clinical Trials page.

To stay informed about clinical trials, visit our Resources page.

 

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