Nupur Lalvani was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 8 years old, and struggled to find a community for her disease in her home country, India.

By Corey Maloney
May 14, 2021
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For most people, seeing a cluster of ants in the bathroom would have you headed to the nearest hardware store for some traps. But for Nupur Lalvani's father, the ants that gathered each time his 8-year-old daughter used the family's bathroom sparked another idea.

"There weren't ants when anyone else would use the washroom, so he thought that the ants were drawn to the sugar in my urine and that maybe I had diabetes," Lalvani tells Heatlh. It turns out, Lalvani's father, who had no medical training, was right—and he may have saved her life.

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Credit: Getty Images

When Lalvani's father first took her to seek medical attention, the doctors were dismissive of her condition. "At first, the doctors told my parents there was no way I had diabetes," says Lalvani. "I was too young and people my age didn't get diabetes." But her father insisted the doctors check her blood sugar levels again. "We ended up at another clinic, where they told us my blood sugar was 636, over six times what it should've been."

It was then that Lalvani was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, after doctors urged her to go to the hospital from the clinic. Her mother told her the news. "She was very upset about it and started crying as she told me I was going to have to take injections for the rest of my life," she says. "I told her that it would be fine; that she didn't need to worry. I think because I was so young, it was easier for me not to make a big deal about it."

After her stint in the hospital, and once she got her blood sugar levels under control, Lalvani didn't have any major issues with her type 1 diabetes diagnosis—it had come so early in life, and she had a good support system in her family, that she was quickly able to adapt. "I didn't have much trouble at first," she says. "But I think that trouble has a way of creeping up when you least expect it."

But when Lalvani hit her teenage years, something shifted—she started to fall into unhealthy habits in managing her diabetes. "I went through a phase of ignoring my diabetes," she says. "I didn't want to check my blood sugar or carry glucose. I just didn't want to bother with so many extra variables anymore, and that went on for a couple years."

Lalvani's experience isn't unique—she was suffering from something called diabetes burnout, a common occurrence for people who, despite managing their diabetes for an extended period of time, begin to feel frustrated and discouraged by all of the work that goes into it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it happens to many (if not most) people with diabetes, and can manifest though skipping necessary doctor visits or neglecting to regularly check blood sugar levels.

Luckily, as she got older, Lalvani beat her diabetes burnout and realized she had to be responsible for her own health—and that meant reckoning with all the aspects of having diabetes, even when the ones made her favorite hobbies more difficult.

One of the hobbies affected by her diagnosis was running. "I had gotten into running because it was something my family always did together," she says. "My father would run the Mumbai marathon and we'd all go to do shorter runs as a family."

As she got older, Lalvani began to use running as a way to clear her thoughts and burn off stress. "I was just able to zone out," she says. But only to a certain extent: "I had to make sure [my blood sugar levels] weren't getting too high or too low, and I'd have to run with a fanny pack that was jam-packed with my glucose and glucose meter." Sometimes, even those extra precautions weren't enough. "There were also times in the beginning where I couldn't finish a run and had to take a cab home."

Though Lalvani took to running without any sold goals in mind, she soon found herself being able to go longer distances—that's when she decided to take on an ultramarathon, but it didn't work out quite as well as she expected, due to a change in climate. "Having grown up in Mumbai, I thought I knew hot weather, but it was humid and I was absolutely miserable," she says. "I was literally the last person running, struggling to stay alive, but I found a way to finish and was proud of myself for that."

It was at that moment, struggling on an ultramarathon course on her own, Lalvani realized she was missing another important part of her type 1 diabetes journey: people outside of her family who understood her struggles and frustrations dealing with a chronic illness—something difficult to do in India, she says.

"There are a lot of stigmas around diabetes in India. When I was first diagnosed, some people said it happened because I ate too much candy. And many people with diabetes struggle to get married because it's seen as a disability," she says. "I really wanted to connect with other people like me and so I went online to try and find a community."

As she began to form that community, she realized just how important it was—especially to the those in her home country struggling with type 1 diabetes. "The number of diabetics in India is greater than the population of Germany, and I felt like there were so many people out there not getting the support they needed, whether that be medical support, financial support, or emotional support," she says.

This need sparked her to start the Blue Circle Diabetes Foundation, a nonprofit organization with chapters across India, aimed at building a community of support for people with diabetes. In the beginning, the foundation was built on two of Lalvani's interests: helping those with type 1 diabetes and running. "At first we just put together a run and a few people showed up," she says. "It just kept building organically until one day we had over one hundred fifty people show up for a run. I think everyone just wanted to be a part of the cool gang."

The Blue Circle Diabetes Foundation, created in 2018, now offers various programs to help cater to all those dealing with a diagnosis. The Buddy Project Help Line, for example, takes into account the different languages and dialects in India, and offers twelve volunteers who speak nine different languages to help visitors.

Project Gaia, another Blue Circle initiative, is close to Lalvani's heart: supporting women in India with diabetes. "As women living with diabetes, some girlfriends and I realized that it's not a level playing ground," she says. "There is a lot more burden on women and a lot earlier on. So Project Gaia is an initiative to empower women and girls living with diabetes in India. We conduct workshops on everything from sustainable menstruation and menstrual cups to the power of saying 'no' and discussions on topics like marriage and diabetes."

Through Blue Circle, there are also school diabetes awareness sessions and screenings, monthly runs and meetups, outreach to underserved communities and fundraising to help alleviate the financial burden of diabetes on some of India's most vulnerable citizens.

"Like they say, with great power comes great responsibility," she says. "So the bigger we get, the more of an obligation we have to use the platform to help as many people as possible."

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