Finding strength in struggle
Designer Joey Banks shares his journey with type 1 diabetes
Over the last month, our team was excited and honored to welcome designer Joey Banks to the Iris family. Not only is Joey an incredible rock star human, but he’s using his incredible design skills to create impactful work in the healthcare space. What people may not know off the get-go about Joey, however, is that he’s a type 1 diabetic — and he has dedicated his professional life to making a difference in healthcare, joining Virta Health full-time, and now advising at Iris.
According to the 2017 National Diabetes Statistics Report by the CDC, a whopping 30.2 million Americans have diabetes, of only 23.1 are actually diagnosed. Diabetes has been around a long time (the first record of it was in 1552 BC!), and now at the brink of a digital health revolution, it’s exciting to see how technology, and especially design, are contributing to helping diabetics manage the illness.
We virtually sat down with Joey to hear more about his story. Joey isn’t only a designer, but an advocate, and was more than open to share his journey with Type 1 diabetes with the world in honor of Diabetes Awareness Month.
How old were you when you were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes? What were the symptoms?
I found out that I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes on December 27th of 2015, which would have made me 22 years old at the time. The symptoms came on subtly, but very quickly. Feelings that I normally might have attributed to fatigue or jet lag turned out to be direct indicators of a dangerously high blood glucose level. I remember feelings of confusion, irritability, extreme headaches, and, at certain moments, worrying that I may faint. Not knowing what was causing this during those few days was terrifying.
Was there a single moment when you realized something wasn’t quite right?
I had a dream where I was swimming in the ocean, drinking all of the water I could. It sounds silly, especially given how salt water tastes, but throughout these few days before the official diagnosis, I just could not get enough to drink. At the worst, I found myself drinking nearly two gallons of water within 24 hours, and using the bathroom 4–6 times per hour. It became very obvious that something was off.
How do you manage your diabetes? What sort of changes to your life had to occur?
Throughout these last two years, I’ve learned that it is much less about controlling my type 1 diabetes, and more about managing it. I have discovered, through many days of trial and error, that type 1 diabetes is much more of a balancing act than a perfect science. There are going to be days where I believe that I have done everything right, but my blood glucose level may still not reflect that effort. It can be frustrating, and extremely tiring, but the most important lesson has been to try to learn and practice course correction.
Since being diagnosed, there have been several changes to my day-to-day routine that I have had to make, including pushing myself to become very familiar and friendly with needles. The first, and most important, has been to always be aware of where I can find glucose, or to make sure that I always have a source of glucose on me. If I find myself going hypoglycemic, depending on the severity, I might only have minutes to course correct with glucose before my body goes into an emergency mode and I risk going unconscious. Without enough glucose in the body’s bloodstream, your body is unable to perform all of the normal functions.
Even when taking all of the proper steps to maintain a normal glucose level, a hypoglycemic event is still possible, as dozens of factors including alcohol, medication, and exercise can all cause your levels to go too low. I wear a continuous glucose monitor, also referred to as a CGM, which allows me to see my glucose in real time on my iPhone or on my Apple Watch. Along with the convenience of this, the CGM is also able to send push notifications to those close to me in the event of a hypoglycemic emergency, adding for more peace of mind.
How have you come to terms with your diabetes? Was was the most difficult part?
Others have said, and I find myself agreeing more and more, that the hardest part about type 1 diabetes was the diagnosis itself. Thinking back to that day nearly two years ago now, I was in an absolute panic because of how little I knew about diabetes. I was afraid of the unknown and was frightened by the thought of having to give up the things I love so that I could better manage this disease. Thankfully, I have yet to give a single thing up that I previously loved doing. If anything, I am doing (and learning) more now than ever before because of type 1 and because of the positions that I have been afforded.
What brought you to Virta Health and Iris Health? How has your work with them impacted you personally?
After finding out that I was a type 1 diabetic, I knew that I wanted to try to pursue a job within the healthcare space. Exploring the chance to use design to empower and improve the lives of individuals is so rewarding for me. I continuously feel like the luckiest guy because of my ability to do what I love while trying to help others. The features that the Iris team has been working on allow for me to feel safer should I ever have an emergency — related to type 1 or not. Living over 2,000 miles away from home, anything that I can do to help my family feel more confident about my health, is a huge win.
At Virta Health, we are a team who is committed to reversing type 2 diabetes in 100M people by 2025, safely and sustainability without medications or surgery. I work with the Clinical Team to research, design, and build the tools and dashboards needed to allow our physicians and our Health Coaches to gain insights and communicate seamlessly with each other and with our patients. With modification, because I am a type 1 diabetic and not a type 2, I am able to use the science of Virta to control my own sugar levels, which has lead to me needing less and less insulin. Anyone who also takes insulin knows how expensive it can be, and I am grateful to be taking less of it.
What role do you think health tech has in the diabetes space and what are you excited to see? What impact do you think Iris’ north star will have?
I am excited to see, and to work on, how devices can become further extensions of ourselves. Not for the reasons of social engagement, or related to continuous unhealthy usage, but to allow us to better track our medications, our routines, our symptoms, and more. Within my first weeks as a diabetic, I felt an overwhelming stress regarding how to track and adjust my insulin doses. Unlike a regular medication, doses must be given before a meal or to adjust blood glucose levels after realizing a state of hyperglycemia, which means schedules can be quite random and it’s not uncommon to have to continuously adjust how much you are dosing based on the conditions present at the time.
At Iris, being able to work on a product I dream of existing is incredibly exciting. I think Iris and the features that are being worked on have a huge potential to help the everyday person discover insights about themselves that weren’t possible before without extreme monitoring. It’s going to help a lot of people better understand how their body operates and how to best optimize for the perfect day.
What advice would you give to people who are beginning their journey with type 1?
Type 1 diabetes can often be an infuriating and frustrating disease. It keeps you away from not only certain foods, but also has the potential to keep you away from certain social events that you might have otherwise attended. The first few months of pulling out your glucometer or dosing insulin in public can be quite embarrassing and scary, but I promise you it all becomes normal within a matter of months. It very well might be the engineer in me, but I now find a lot of interest in having to regulate a biological system which was once fully automatic — sometimes you feel a bit superhuman because of it.
Like steering a ship, moving in the right direction requires a lot of small corrections and revised maneuvers. It is rare that a day will be perfect, no matter how hard you try. Learning how to better correct those high or low numbers will come with time and experience. It’s kind of like a daily experiment. How close can you get the numbers to their normal levels? Bad day today? Try again tomorrow, possibly with some minor adjustments. That’s what I’m telling myself. The future is going to continue to be full of both ups and downs, I’m sure, but I am thankful for my significant other, my family, and my friends who all have stood close by and have shown their support.
“It very well might be the engineer in me, but I now find a lot of interest in having to regulate a biological system which was once fully automatic — sometimes you feel a bit superhuman because of it.”
What positives have come about from your diagnosis?
Through the diagnosis, I have been able to learn so much about myself and about nutrition. I have been able to push my body to limits that I hadn’t previously known possible. I refuse to let this disease stop me from doing anything that I love, and after two years, that has held true. I feel absolutely humbled to be working in healthcare and to have the chance to affect the lives of others in a positive way with technology, and through design. I’m grateful to have the chance to work with and learn from so many talented scientists, engineers, designers, and thought leaders within the medical industry.