Olympic gold medalist promotes diabetes research at Sanford

Gary Hall Jr., swimming great with type 1 diabetes, aims to make treatment better and more accessible

Olympic gold medalist promotes diabetes research at Sanford

You don’t win 10 Olympic medals over the course of three Olympics without an intense resolve to see things through. In Gary Hall Jr.’s case, the same goes for speaking up about diabetes.

Hall, who is a member of the Sanford Health International Advisory Board, won five gold, three silver and two bronze medals representing the U.S. swim team in the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympics.

In 1999 he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes but went on to win two gold medals, a silver and a bronze at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. He returned to the Olympics in 2004 and won a gold and a bronze, showing the world — and especially those with type 1 diabetes — that greatness is still possible.

For Hall, who recently was visiting Sioux Falls, South Dakota, it is important to speak to those with the disease, but also to speak for them. The goal is to be both an inspiring example and an inspiring advocate.

Diabetes research at Sanford Health

His work with PLEDGE, Sanford Health’s large-scale screening of children under 6 years of age and 9-16 years of age for antibodies related to type 1 diabetes and celiac disease, is part of that two-pronged effort.

Learn more and enroll: PLEDGE pediatric screening study

“The PLEDGE study is incredible because it’s creating data that didn’t exist before — it helps us determine who is at risk and helps figure out how to delay the onset of the disease,” Hall said. “If we can prevent diabetes from happening, that’s as good as a cure.”

The Sanford PLEDGE campaign represents a vital part of Sanford Health’s overall effort to diminish the impact of type 1 diabetes. Unlike type 2 diabetes, type 1 is an autoimmune disease where the body quits making insulin.

In the decade since Hall began his affiliation with Sanford, he has emerged as one of the nation’s top spokesmen for type 1 diabetes care and research.

“I’ve come across all of it — I’ve been able to see all the research and academia,” Hall said. “A huge differentiator for Sanford Health and their programs like PLEDGE is that they want to get the football into the end zone. They want to cross the finish line.”

The PLEDGE screening helps identify children who have a high risk for progressing to overt type 1 diabetes. Early detection can be a valuable tool because it can lead to earlier and more effective treatment. Identifying high risk children will also enable trials of promising prevention therapies.

Living with type 1 diabetes

Hall had already been to the Olympics once when he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. He quickly began identifying with others dealing with type 1 while using his success on the worldwide stage as an educational platform.

“I was speaking out on behalf of the patients about things like access to health insurance and keeping the price of insulin affordable for patients living with the disease,” Hall said. “I have this role within the community to, No. 1, let kids who are newly diagnosed know that it’s not the end of the world — that if you aggressively manage this disease anything is possible. You can win gold medals at the Olympics.”

No. 2 for Hall is talking about what it’s like to have type 1 diabetes. What are the hardships? How can care improve? What does the public need to know about the impact diabetes can have?

“It’s very difficult to manage,” he said. “I campaign for better therapies, better medical devices, and better insulins to make it easier for kids, their families, parents, and the adults who have been touched by this disease. It was something I was immediately passionate about, something I threw myself into and something I’m just as passionate about today. I’ve seen a lot of progress but there is still a lot of progress to be made.”

What’s next in diabetes research

It is the promise of progress that keeps Hall committed to the cause. He’s not just making celebrity appearances on behalf of diabetes. He’s much more the boots-on-the-ground soldier in lifting diabetes care. He spends a lot of time with donors, politicians and others who can make significant impact.

“The medical research is important because insulin is not a cure,” he said. “It’s not even a great way of management. A slight miscalculation of insulin can send a kid — or me — into a coma or death. And so this is not good. It is not acceptable. So I talk about the promise of the research.”

That includes work with transplanting groupings of beta cells, called islets, that help regulate blood sugar levels. There is also work with cell therapy that gives researchers reason to believe a cure is in sight.

“Part of my role is to surround myself with the most brilliant minds in diabetes research and take that research and dummy it down for the laypeople who aren’t medical geniuses,” Hall said. “We want people to understand how close we are to finding a cure for this disease while also spreading that hope and emphasizing how urgent it is.”

Curing diabetes can be a lot like winning gold medals, he said. That same kind of perseverance in the pool adapts very well to moving forward on dry land.

“We can’t be satisfied with the status quo,” Hall said. “That is the definition of apathy. There is nothing more despicable than just being stagnant, right? We, as a species — not just athletes, but great organizations, leaders in politics, in business and in entertainment — need to figure out how to get better. It’s not broken or fixed. It’s somewhere in between. How do we get better? We do it by getting a little bit better every day. That’s what drives Sanford Health. It’s an investment in trying to improve outcomes.”

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Posted In Children's, Endocrinology, Research