One on 1 with an Aviator Hopeful

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Welcome to JDRF NorCal’s blog, One on 1, a series of interviews with people who live with type 1 diabetes (T1D). Members of the community talk about how T1D affects them, how they manage it, and what they have accomplished despite it. Today we talk with Che Burns, Pacific Grove Unified School District groundskeeper by day, family man and aviation enthusiast for the rest of his time.

When were you diagnosed with T1D and what was it like for you at the time?

Twenty years ago, I was in technical school in Wyoming and felt ill right before I graduated. One night I woke up with an insatiable thirst and within two weeks I was at the local hospital. My dad had type 1 diabetes and passed away at the age of 54. Even knowing this, the doctors first diagnosed me with type 2. For a whole year I tried to find a doctor who would diagnose me correctly and help me out with a pump and insulin. I kept losing weight, 40 pounds total. Finally, at age 21, I found an endocrinologist who diagnosed me with type 1 and I got on insulin.

How has your outlook about the disease changed and evolved throughout the years?

As soon as I knew I was diabetic, I knew there was no going back to the life I had before. I just needed to make the right decisions. I was 18 when my dad had kidney failure and a quadruple bypass. He said to me, “Whatever you do, don’t do what I did. Take care of yourself.” The doctor can tell you what to do, but it’s all on your shoulders day in and day out. After about 10 years of living with diabetes, I got on an insulin pump! I’m currently on the Medtronic MiniMed 770G system and  I’m doing really well. And working at the school keeps me active!

When and how did you become interested in flying?

Young Che discovering his dream of flying.

I became interested in flying at 5 years old. The idea of being in the sky was all I could think about. I remember my uncle took us to the Salinas International Air Show, and he took us on a helicopter tour. It stuck with me and solidified my love of flying. I was never on an actual plane until the age of 12. But I was hooked and wanted to grow up to be a professional pilot.

What kind of roadblocks did you encounter due to T1D?

My dad always said that If you don’t do it, it won’t fall in your lap. But I didn’t know how to pay for the training. I went to technical school so I could get a skill I could use and raise money to make this dream happen. But then I got T1D.

Until recently, you couldn’t be a commercial airline pilot if you had T1D. Then, in 2019, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) announced that it would allow people with T1D to apply for a special issuance authorization in order to obtain a First Class Medical certification to be a commercial airline pilot. That was my dream.

In July, I received the special issuance waiver from the FAA that says my T1D is not a disqualifying condition. I went through an in-depth aeromedical exam, including an EKG heart test. I now have a First Class Medical certificate! Now I’m getting treated like everyone else and can take all the training I need to become a pilot.

I’m in the very first group of people with T1D to receive this certificate. My wife has been saying all along I could be first, why not? Someone has to be first! The medical examiner even told me that I was very lucky, and that his grandson has T1D and wants to be a pilot. He said that I was an inspiration to him and all the others who want to fly with T1D. It’s been very emotional and I’m on cloud 9. What was impossible is now a reality.

Now you’re pursuing your dream of becoming a commercial airline pilot. How is it going?

I have been waiting my whole life for this opportunity. Now I am 41, and every six months I have to get medical paperwork completed and sent to the FAA. There is a flight school near me, and I started taking lessons. But it’s expensive and I’m looking for a way to pay for more lessons. My goal is to begin a new career in aviation. I’m trying to learn as much as I can, reading and listening to audio books. I don’t read novels, I read technical manuals!

If you could say something to your younger T1D self, what would it be?

I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I look back, I see that I was bitter, frustrated and feeling limited. The one thing I always wanted to do was fly and I knew I couldn’t do it. Everything else seemed second best. So, I would say to be open minded and never give up. Push though. Your mindset is a number one priority.

What would a cure mean to you?

A cure would mean that the 24/7 underlying stress and distractions of T1D are gone, and I can just get on with my dreams.

JDRF offers a series of E-Meet & Greets, including a monthly online discussion group for adults who live with T1D. All are welcome. Learn more and register here.