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Shannon Koehle: Q&A - Miss Black U.S.A. 2007 And Diabetes Advocate Kalilah Allen-Harris

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When were you first diagnosed with type 1 diabetes?
I was diagnosed on February 10th, 1999. I was 14 years old. It was at Children's Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama.

What symptoms did you exhibit?
There was increased thirst. I woke up at least six or seven times a night to urinate. I lost close to 20 pounds in about a week. It seemed like the more I ate, the hungrier I got and the more I drank the thirstier I got. I also experienced extreme fatigue. The day I finally did go to see a physician, I could not physically get out of bed. I had to have help from my mom.

Had you heard of diabetes before your diagnosis?
Not really. I had heard of diabetes but I didn’t know anything about it and I didn’t know anyone with the disease. I had heard that if you get diabetes you get your leg amputated. So I didn’t have a lot of knowledge and I had to do a lot of research about the disease.

Did the diagnosis affect, either positively or negatively, relationships with friends and family?
At first, it was a negative impact because I didn’t want to be viewed as different or as a person with a disability. So I decided to hide it from my friends. But once I accepted it because it wasn’t going away, then it became a positive thing. I got to teach my friends. We bonded over it. They saw a vulnerable side of me. They got to help remind me monitor, estimating the carbohydrates. And they were excited to be a part of that. When I was excited because a new pump was coming out or a new technological advance, they got excited with me.

It definitely changed my lifestyle for the better. We had to make sure all the meals were compatible with the diet. I had to change not just what I eat but the way I think about eating so it was a process for all of us.

Did you always want to become a role model for those with type 1 diabetes?
I never really thought about it. I just knew that when I was that age, I said I wish I had someone to look up to. I wish I knew people doing good stuff that I could look forward to. It just so happened that I ended up doing things that led me down the path of becoming a role model.

Did you have any role models?
Of course. My mother, my grandmother and Oprah.
I admire so many people but those are the ones who let me know that anything I want to do is possible.

Do you use insulin injections or an insulin pump? Why?
I am using the pump because it allows me to live the closest thing to a stress free life. I can eat when I want, sleep when I want. It’s pretty flexible like I need it to be, so can appreciate that I have the ability to choose when I want to do. I choose the pump. I’ll never go back.

What advice can you share with those who are newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes?
Be open about the disease. Learn as much as you can. Do as much as you can with your team of healthcare professionals as soon as possible and keep it that way to prevent the complications that can be associated with diabetes.

Be open minded. Don’t try to fight it. Accept it. Move forward. Do what you have to do to make sure that it doesn’t cut your life short. Complications arise that are not necessarily preventable but as much as we can do by keeping good glycemic control, those measures should be taken.

Did you want to be Miss Black USA before your diagnosis?
The Miss Black USA organization is 21 years in existence now. They were in existence when I was a little girl but I didn’t know about them. When I was young, I used to watch pageants and thought I wanted to do that. I didn’t plan to compete in the pageant. I heard about it on the radio very randomly after having finished an introductory program that medical students take.

They said they were offering scholarship money. And so I went for it. I always wanted to be in a pageant but I didn’t go out to say these are the steps I’m going to take to be Miss Black USA. I’m so grateful to be in the right place in the right time. I would do it all over again for the next six years if I could.

Did you perform in pageants before your diagnosis?

What do you hope to accomplish once becoming a doctor?
I would like to be able to spread my message. I will always be an advocate for diabetes research and education through event like the World Diabetes Day “Young Voices: Life With Diabetes” interactive youth forum in New York City, and partnerships with leading organizations like Novo Nordisk, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), Discovery Health and Discovery Education, who are hosting the forum.

Professionally, my interest is in spreading good healthcare opportunities with people who would otherwise not have it- especially those who are uninsured or under-insured by doing community outreach. I would also like to have a hospital that would provide orthopedic care for un-insured or under-insured. Orthopedic injuries are the number one cause of people who cannot afford healthcare.

Do you ever, did you ever think, "Wow, I really wish I didn't have diabetes?"
At first, yes. There’s the denial. You think, why me? This doesn’t run in my family. But no, it’s helped me to mature and learn a lot about myself. And it taught me organization and the importance of time management and being responsible. So I’d have to say no.

Do you plan to continue diabetes awareness?

Are you concerned about getting other diabetes related conditions later in life?
Not really. Of course it could happen. But I don’t sit around worrying about it. I just try to properly mange my diabetes.

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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