By Talley Henning Brown
It was a rare opening for a Town Hall event, even in the nation’s capital. Walking across the stage and seating herself in an armchair in front of her audience at the JDRF 2011 Children’s Congress was none other than Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
On Tuesday, June 21, the Children’s Congress delegates—155 children with type 1 diabetes, ages 4 to 17, representing all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and seven other nations—gathered at the Town Hall, a special forum where the delegates have the opportunity to talk to role models from all walks of life who share their daily challenges and triumphs in dealing with type 1 diabetes. Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, a member of the 2011 Children’s Congress Chair Family, opened the floor with a warm introduction for Justice Sotomayor that captured the excitement of everyone in the room—all of whom were looking forward to hearing the distinguished speaker’s story.
Justice Sotomayor is not just successful, but a record-breaker: she has more federal judicial experience than any justice in 100 years, and she is the third woman and the very first Hispanic justice to be appointed to the Supreme Court. Despite all of these achievements, Justice Sotomayor shared with the delegates that there were challenges along the way.
Justice Sotomayor was eight years old when she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and her story was a familiar one to the delegates. First, she said, she noticed that she was thirsty all the time. She started drinking so much water that she wet her bed in her sleep, and was deeply embarrassed. That was only the beginning. One day, she collapsed in church and was rushed to the hospital. She was so scared by a doctor who came to draw her blood with a big needle that she escaped outside and hid under a parked car, with the hospital staff in hot pursuit. Dragged back into the hospital, she kicked and screamed so much that she didn’t even feel the needle go in, and she realized that maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. But seeing her mother cry for the first time when she was diagnosed really affected her. “I was scared,” she confessed.
The delegates were captivated by Justice Sotomayor’s story. She described what it was like growing up with type 1 diabetes in the 1960s, when the disease was more commonly referred to as “juvenile diabetes,” and before JDRF even existed. Back then, there were no test strips or disposable needles. So, at eight years old, she used a razor blade to test her blood glucose and sterilized her insulin needles in boiling water every morning—standing on a chair to reach the top of the stove. One of the delegates asked her if anything positive had come from her diabetes, and she said that there were two things. First, she had learned discipline, a big advantage when it came to schoolwork; and second, she had learned how to pay close attention to her body’s signals and to monitor her blood sugar carefully in stressful situations.
When Justice Sotomayor finished telling her story, she asked the delegates if they had questions for her. Indeed they did! Fifteen-year-old Stephen Wallace, a delegate from Michigan who has judicial aspirations himself, was especially eager to ask what Justice Sotomayor did at his age to get her all the way to the highest court in the country. “Nothing,” she replied, explaining that although she knew she wanted to be a lawyer and a judge, in 10th grade she knew nothing about the Supreme Court. Joining the high school debate team taught her argument and public speaking skills, and she was involved in student government. Another ingredient of her success? “I grew up in the Bronx—I’m tough,” she said.
Five-year-old Isabella, a delegate from South Carolina, asked the question that was on all the delegates’ minds: does having type 1 diabetes get any easier as an adult? “Absolutely!” Justice Sotomayor assured the delegates. Testing and treatment technologies are easier to use today than ever—almost no one ever notices when she gives herself an insulin injection, she said.
Regardless of the daily challenges, Justice Sotomayor told the delegates, “You can deal with it,” and lead a very full life. She is living proof. As she told the delegates, “You get to do anything you want in life, because I have. I now have the job of my dreams. I’m a Supreme Court justice, and it’s a really cool job.”
The Children’s Congress delegates enjoyed having a personal interaction with a Supreme Court justice, and now they have something in common with one. To prepare for a day as one of the most powerful and influential people in America, Justice Sotomayor makes sure to do one thing, something that all the delegates do, too—she checks her blood sugar.