If You’re Not Flying the International Space Station and Advocating for Type 1 Diabetes, Are You Really Living?

Meet April Blackwell, an aerospace engineer who does both on the daily.

By Gabi De la Rosa October 24, 2019

April Blackwell at the 2019 JDRF Children's Congress.

“Houston, we have a problem.” That's what aspiring astronaut April Blackwell thought when she was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at 11. Even though T1D is an automatic disqualification for becoming an astronaut, Blackwell didn’t let the diagnosis stop her from pursing her dreams. Fast-forward a few decades, and Blackwell now works for Leidos as an attitude determination and control officer. She's one of the few people allowed to fly the International Space Station from mission control.

Because Blackwell was diagnosed at such a young age, she naturally gravitated toward the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the world’s largest nonprofit funder of T1D research. Now an avid supporter of JDRF, Blackwell wants to raise awareness about National Diabetes Awareness Month in November and One Walk, JDRF Houston's largest fundraiser. JDRF hopes to raise over $1.3 million for T1D during this year's events on October 26 (One Walk Houston) and November 9 (One Walk The Woodlands).

We spoke with Blackwell about her journey with T1D, her passion for everything space-related, and why advocating for others with the disease has become part of her daily life.

One Walk Houston, this Saturday at NRG, is one of JDRF's biggest fundraisers.

You dreamed of becoming an astronaut from a young age—was your diagnosis devastating, or did you just pivot your dream to something else?

Connecting the dots from T1D diagnosis to astronaut disqualification was heartbreaking, especially for 11-year-old me. I kept secretly hoping a new passion might show up on my radar, but it never came. It turns out rockets and space are my love language, and I decided to just go for it. Even if “astronaut” was off the table, I wasn’t going to let T1D steal my passion or drive for a career in aerospace.

Where did your fascination with space come from?

My dad gets all the credit on this one—his job as an aircraft mechanic started the gears turning toward a career in aerospace, and his fascination with Apollo sealed the deal. Both of my parents completely supported my dreams, often driving me to summer science camps, planning family trips to out-of-state space museums, and constantly feeding my brain with space-related books. Even after my T1D diagnosis, they encouraged me to stick to my gut and pursue a career in aerospace.

What's it like to fly the International Space Station?

Sitting at a console in NASA’s mission control is truly a dream come true for this self-described space nerd. As a specialist in my flight control discipline I get to plan and execute vehicle rendezvous, dockings, undockings, spacewalks, and large maneuvers (sometimes we flip the space station backwards for certain events). My specific discipline supports operations 24/7/365, so occasionally I am scheduled to work the overnight shift or a holiday (I’ve been on console on Christmas several years), but it’s easy to work strange hours when you really love what you do.

What is the biggest misconception that people with T1D deal with?

There is a common misconception that someone did something to cause Type 1—there are jokes and misinformation that continue to fuel this thought, but it’s absolutely false. Something happens that causes the pancreas to shut down and stop producing insulin; to stay alive, we are forced to count all of the carbohydrates we eat, inject insulin to allow our body to use these carbohydrates, and test our blood sugar to ensure our calculations were correct. This cycle is continuous, every single day. The logistics of the disease itself are challenging, but dealing with the misconceptions or stereotypes can be even tougher. 

What activities are limited or off-limits to a person with T1D?

There are several, but the good news is the list is shrinking as more and more agencies ingest fresh diabetes-related data and understand the latest diabetes management tools. Organizations like JDRF help put weight behind our voices and have moved the needle on rules limiting T1D pilots, first responders, SCUBA divers, and CDL drivers, just to name a few. This doesn’t mean a T1D is guaranteed a medical clearance for these activities, but it does mean they have a chance, which is a better scenario than even just a few years ago. There is more work to be done, both in advancing diabetes management technology and in educating certifying agencies.

How long have you been involved with JDRF and why is it important to you?

I have been involved with JDRF off and on since diagnosis. They make it so easy—I have lived in several different states and have always been able to find a friendly JDRF chapter. The Type 1 walks and bike rides are a great and easy way to get involved. The work JDRF does is obviously close to my heart; I even supported them at my wedding. My husband and I decided to forgo typical wedding favors and instead donate to JDRF in our guests’ honor—it gave a new meaning to “in sickness and in health.” This summer, I was honored to attend JDRF’s Children’s Congress in Washington, D.C. to serve as a role model for amazing kids chosen from each state. It was a wonderful experience and a catalyst to double down on my advocacy efforts.

How does the combination of having T1D and being an aerospace engineer impact your advocacy?

I started realizing there was a way to fuse my passions for aerospace and T1D advocacy after working through some challenges at my previous job. Previously I worked with the Army as a contractor, flying on experimental Army helicopters as a flight test engineer. Part of the paperwork process was to obtain a Federal Aviation Administration Class III medical clearance, which took nearly six months and mountains of medical records, doctor’s letters, and proof that I could manage my disease within certain parameters. I detailed the saga on my blog and soon after started receiving letters from other T1Ds who were facing similar hurdles.

It became clear to me that so many of these rules disqualifying T1Ds from certain activities or certifications were based on antiquated data and disease management techniques. I wouldn’t classify myself as a “rule-breaker,” but I am a “rule-questioner.” I’m thankful my jobs and experiences have provided opportunities to question outdated rules, educate medical professionals that normally only deal with nearly perfect specimens, and start shifting the paradigm that T1D is a limiting disease.

JDRF One Walk Houston begins at 9 a.m. (7:30 a.m. check-in) on Saturday, October 26 at NRG Stadium.

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