1. Could you give us a brief overview about yourself and your occupation?
My name is Rachel Portelli and although my journey so far had its highs and lows, literally, I never let this chronic illness get in the way of my goals and dreams. I graduated from a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in Social Policy and following that I was accepted to do an internship at the International Diabetes Federation – Europe. This gave me ample experience within this field as I was able to raise awareness, work with member states as well as members of parliaments and organize projects relating to diabetes. During this internship, I was also chosen as an IDF Young Leader in Diabetes as well as a Queen’s Young Leader in result of the voluntary work I do for the diabetes community. These were two amazing programmes that gave me access to a network of professionals and leaders, learning resources and much more. After such experiences, I also enrolled in a Masters of Arts in Health, Medicine and Society, which I also recently graduated from. My work continues to build on these experiences as I continue to work with health care professionals and I am an active member within the Maltese Diabetes community.
2. You were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of three. How do you cope with living with diabetes?
I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at a very young age. Therefore, not knowing anything else rather than life with type 1 diabetes, every day is different. When you start thinking you got the hang of it and have almost perfect blood sugar levels, a change takes place that has an effect on one’s glucose levels. As a child, type 1 diabetes didn’t have such an impact on me. My parents used to take care of it for me. They gave me my insulin, checked my levels, prepared meals, explained to teachers and more. Then as time went by, I started taking more responsibility. At times it hits you that this is never going away, and that it will always be the annoying companion you want to take a break from – yet this is not an option. Nowadays, I know that certain things are out of my control. Everybody has tough days, and one’s health isn’t always perfect even though you try your hardest. With the help of health care professionals, other individuals and life experience, I have learnt how to deal with such situations. Sometimes it is just a case of trial and error.
3. You’re one of Malta’s diabetes advocates and you help others who suffer from the same condition? What exactly do you do and why did you decide to become so involved in raising awareness about a condition that you suffer from?
At a very young age, I thought that there was no one else experiencing what I was going through, and was I so wrong! I started meeting other children living with diabetes at the diabetes clinic. My parents also took me to the annual summer camp organized by the Maltese Diabetes Association. I was definitely not alone. However, with little contact with other individuals, I felt alone and misunderstood. As I started growing up, this became harder and harder. For years, I felt this way, and when things started going out of control, a person who has type 1 diabetes reached out to me. That moment led me to realize that when speaking to other people going through the same challenges 24/7 made such a difference. That is when I decided to start being involved within the diabetes community as I never wanted another person to go through what I went through alone. Having another support system within your life who has experienced almost the same challenges could be seen as the umbrella in one’s thunderstorm.
Since taking that decision, I have been involved within the diabetes community and volunteer with the Maltese Diabetes Association where I am now the secretary, whilst I help raise awareness through social media and speak to individuals who live with diabetes. I also attend and speak during seminars, give lectures when invited by nursing students and am also involved internationally with the International Diabetes Federation (IDF).
4. Can you tell us about your novel “Special 1” and your online initiative “Supporting 1 Another”?
When I was in my teens, instead of replying verbally to certain moments which were caused by comments from others, I would write them down. I never thought anything of it, it was just my way of clearing my head and feel better. After writing thousands of words, I realized that this was more than just a few bits and pieces. This resulted in a story. Adapting this into a new storyline, this was written in a way that not only people with diabetes would enjoy reading, but also other individuals. This became a story about a young girl that passes through different stages in her life with a chronic illness. Whether it was through school, family events, going out with friends, or even relationships, this story takes the reader through a whirlwind of emotions.
On the other hand, being chosen as a Queens Young Leader as well as an IDF Young Leader in Diabetes, I met so many inspirational and strong individuals. Through these programmes, I was able to learn and expand my knowledge on how to make a difference within the Maltese community. That is how ‘Supporting 1 Another’ started. This online platform shares different stories from people within the Maltese community living with type 1 diabetes. It also provides pieces from Health Care Professionals working within the Maltese and Gozitan Health Care System. Finally, it raises awareness that type 1 diabetes is not just a matter of diet and exercise. It is much more than that!
5. You live in Gozo. What level of service and care does GGH, as part of Steward Health Care Malta, provide you and other diabetic patients?
Diabetes affects everything within our system. One needs to ensure that checkups take place every few months in order to ensure one’s health is fine through regular blood tests, checkups from podiatrists, ophthalmologists and other health care professionals. At the Gozo General Hospital, there are a number of services available nowadays that aid in managing this chronic illness with the support and guidance provided by various health care professionals at Steward.
6. And finally, what is your message on the occasion of World Diabetes Day? To both diabetic people but also to those who live with them?
For people living with diabetes, every day is diabetes day. There are no breaks, or vacation leave. It may be overwhelming at times but you are not alone. You have support. Whether it is from a parent, other family member, friend, partner, colleague or other. And, we cannot ignore the fact that this isn’t difficult for them. Seeing a person you love face such obstacles and not being able to take it away, is very difficult for them. Throughout this journey we must support each other and by raising awareness within our society, other individuals will also be aware of what diabetes truly is and what it involves.