One on 1 with a Humanitarian


Emily Coles, volunteering in Lesbos, Greece.
Emily Coles on her first trip to Greece, volunteering in Lesbos.

Welcome to JDRF Bay Area’s blog, One on 1, a series of interviews with people who live with type 1 diabetes (T1D). Members of our community talk about how T1D affects them, how they manage it, and what they have accomplished despite it. We caught up with Emily Coles in San Francisco. She recently took two trips to Greece, spending weeks at a time, volunteering at Syrian refugee camps.

When were you diagnosed with T1D and how has your outlook changed over the years?

I was diagnosed with T1D at the age of 3. My parents never gave me the concept that T1D would hold me back from anything. And that’s how I’ve always lived my life.

You have spent many weeks in Greece this year, volunteering with Syrian refugees. How did you become involved with this cause?

I learned of an organized effort through a friend on Facebook. I saw posts about regular, everyday people from the Bay Area who felt compelled to go to Greece and assist with the crisis first hand. I found those stories awe-inspiring. I contacted my friend on Facebook to ask how I could sign up. Turns out there was no ‘signing up.’ My friend said to just come to Greece and I would find out how I could help once I got there.

Were you hesitant to go, living with T1D?

T1D has never made me pause about anything. I do recognize that everything is more dangerous with T1D. But when you think about it, watching TV or reading a book is more dangerous with T1D! Of course, my parents were nervous and my girlfriend was terrified about my trips. But I never questioned that I would go. My girlfriend came with me on my first trip and I went alone on my second trip.

Emily Coles, on her second trip to Greece, volunteering at camp in Idomeni
Emily Coles on her second trip to Greece, volunteering at a camp in Idomeni

What was it like when you got there?

I showed up to catastrophic conditions. Boats of people – families – were coming in droves from Turkey. There were no resources to receive them. There was not enough fresh water or food. A camp was set up on the beach. As they arrived, we brought them clothing, hot tea, a blanket, comfort. There was a language barrier so a lot of pantomiming was used for communication.

How did you manage your T1D in those conditions?

I managed my T1D to the best of my ability and I admit the results were not that great! But I knew that as long as I had some kind of insulin and some kind of sugar I’d be ok. I was super careful to always have sugar with me. I carried gluca tabs in my pockets and kept backup pods, syringes and insulin in my car. It was uncomfortable to see people in desperate need of food and then pull out raisins to treat low blood sugar, and not being able to share. I had to go hide places to eat sugar.

Did you meet anyone else with T1D?

I met someone with type 2 diabetes. We had some donated crackers and nutella to distribute. An older man came over and pointed at the nutella and made a ‘no’ gesture. Again, lots of pantomiming. I pulled out my glucose meter and he pulled out his metformin. I knew what that was, so I got him some peanut butter crackers and we hugged and smiled. We made a connection.

What did you learn from your experience?

I gained a lot of perspective about the human spirit. I saw families who were separated and didn’t know if they would ever find each other again. And yet, they would find dignity on these camps, organizing their tents, always staying as clean and groomed as possible. The children were incredible. They would follow me around asking if they could help, or they would find friends, laugh and play. When I came home I felt so grateful for the life that I have.

Would you do it again?

I will always look for more ways to give back. My parents gave me these values. Having T1D does not exempt me from the duties of being a good world citizen, which includes helping others.