April Blackwell will be presenting the keynote address at the JDRF Greater New England Chapter’s TypeOneNation Summit Boston on Saturday, March 25 at the Sheraton Boston Hotel.
April Blackwell is an Aerospace Engineer and lifelong astronaut hopeful who flies the International Space Station from NASA Mission Control. April has worked at NASA for nine years but has been passionate about space since kindergarten when she decided to become an astronaut. A diagnosis of type 1 diabetes (T1D) at age 11 seemed like an insurmountable roadblock as living with the disease is an automatic disqualification on the astronaut application. But instead of giving up she doubled down—learning Russian in high school, studying hard in math, and receiving a full scholarship to attain an Aerospace Engineering degree.
In her aerospace career, April has flown more than 250 hours in experimental Army aircraft and passed qualifications in the Army Special Operations helicopter dunker program, altitude chamber, and parachute course—all of which normally preclude T1D participants. Since she received her NASA flight controller certification, she has acquired more than 3,000 console hours in Mission Control, responsible for piloting the ISS. April hasn’t given up on her ultimate dream of becoming an astronaut, but she has added an extra challenge—to be the first person living with T1D in space!
She is passionate about sharing her experiences to inspire fellow T1Ds to push boundaries in pursuit of their dreams.
In April’s words:
Information About My Experience with Diabetes:
I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at age 11 after a week of daily visits to the pediatrician’s office. I remember joking about being able to “pee on command” but that’s sort of where the jokes end because I felt absolutely awful. After several daily visits, the nurse finally checked my blood sugar, there was palpable concern in her voice as she read the number to the doctor. She was convinced the machine was broken or the test strip expired. I had no idea that my life was about to change.
Since that day I have had my share of ups and downs as I navigate life with Type 1 Diabetes. I was forced to grow up fast because I desperately wanted to maintain my independence. And when I came to the realization that I wouldn’t be able to be a NASA astronaut it was crushing.
But diabetes or not I was still absolutely obsessed with space and decided to pursue a degree in aerospace engineering. My job post-college gave me opportunities to push the boundaries of Federal Aviation Administration and military rules — I got a medical waiver, passed qualifications in the helicopter dunker and parachute course, and even experienced the altitude chamber, all while managing Type 1 Diabetes (and convincing the military doctors that I was capable of managing my disease).
These days you can find me on console in mission control, with an insulin pump in my pocket and snacks in my backpack of course! I work side by side with astronauts every day and talk with other control centers all over the world. Diabetes has made me the person and engineer I am today!
Diabetes is not a “hands-off” disease. It’s constant, it’s unrelenting, and it goes back and forth between feeling like a marathon and a sprint, sometimes on the same day (sometimes in the same hour!). I’ve learned that being in community with others facing similar challenges is crucial to navigating the literal ups and downs of blood sugars, and the figurative ups and downs of health insurance, diabetes technology, medications, and rules that limit what people with diabetes can do.
JDRF and its annual TypeOneNation summits are an incredible way to hear voices from research, industry, and fellow T1Ds! I learn something every time and always walk away feeling less lonely and more empowered to face this disease day in and day out. It’s also a great place to see new diabetes technology and prepare for my next endocrinology appointment!
My Advice to Families Impacted by Diabetes:
It has taken me years to realize that there can be efficiency when you “lean in” to a challenge rather than fight against it. This is true across just about every category in life, but especially when facing a diagnosis like diabetes. I spent years being angry, asking “why me?” and generally throwing myself a pity party. But when I shifted that mindset and started leaning into all the positives that come out of living with such a complicated disease my management was better, my mental health was improved, and my motivation was through the roof. I’m not saying diabetes suddenly became easy, but looking at the diagnosis as a benefit instead of a hindrance was life-changing, especially when that diagnosis denied you access to achieving your kindergarten dream (at least through the traditional path).
My advice to families impacted by diabetes is to “lean in” to the Latin phrase repeated time and again in aerospace circles, “Ad Astra Per Aspera.” Translated, the phrase means, “A rough road leads to the stars.” The most incredible accomplishments are not a product of smooth roads, they are a result of incredible discipline even when faced with enormous challenges. Diabetes has been my biggest challenge so far and continues to take up a lot of space in my brain. But I’m hopeful its challenges have conditioned me to reach the stars.
-April Blackwell, NASA ADCO Flight Controller, Aerospace Engineer, Writer, and Blogger, Living with T1D since age 11
Pre-registration is required for the JDRF TypeOneNation Summit Boston by Wednesday, March 22 at noon EDT. To register, please visit typeonenationboston2023.eventbrite.com.