When physicians Nat Strand and Kat Chang crossed the finish line of “The Amazing Race”’s 17th season, they made history as the first all-female winning team. But while the grueling competition has challenged even contestants in top physical condition, Nat had an extra hurdle: She’s a type 1 diabetic.
“I felt like I did a whole leg of the race before I even started!” the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based anesthesiologist says of planning to manage a chronic condition during the race. She shared her thoughts on the journey with Spry.
Spry: What kind of preparation went into making sure you’d be able to compete as a type 1 diabetic?
Nat Strand: The preparation was one of the hardest things, like trying to figure out how to have enough diabetic supplies to last the whole month. The show has very strict rules: You’re allowed to bring as much stuff as you want, but you have to carry it on you. I had seen the show before so I knew you had to be ready for almost anything. To do all that with a suitcase full of supplies, much less just a backpack, would be a challenge.
I met with my diabetic nurse educator and my endocrinologist several times, and then I had to put my anesthesiologist hat on and try to come up with any scenario that might happen, and everything I might need if it did. What if my insulin pump gets disconnected? What if I run out of batteries? What if I drop an insulin vial and it breaks? What if I get low, what if I get high? There was a significant amount of planning that went into it.
Spry: What was the day-to-day management like?
NS: It was pretty intense. The whole show was shot over three weeks, and you’re really racing the entire time. It’s one of those situations where you’re in crisis management. I was making sure I wasn’t too high or too low, but it was not the three weeks of my life where I was really focused on having a perfect blood sugar. I just tried to eat when I was low and test a lot. Then whenever I checked into the rest stop at the end of the leg of the race, I would eat a full meal and have a lot of water, make sure my pump was full for the next day, that kind of thing.
Spry: Did the producers have any concerns?
NS: They did before the show. They have their own physician, who I had to meet with separately. He had to get clearance from my doctors. Luckily, I’m fairly active — I’ve done a couple of half marathons, and I scuba dive. So my doctor was able to say, “She does all this anyway, so she can handle it.” I do think that if I wasn’t doing it with another physician, and I hadn’t been a physician myself, I don’t know if they would have been as comfortable with it.
Spry: Do you think being doctors gave you and Kat an edge in the race?
NS: I do. I think the training it takes to become a physician requires you to become good at operating under pressure, being sleep deprived, and taking the emotional component out of intense situations — just executing a plan. That helped us a lot. I remember by the third leg, I was so tired, I was hungry, I was dehydrated. I was overwhelmed with how exhausting it was. But being doctors, we’re kind of used to that. It didn’t cause us to lose our focus.
Spry: Have other diabetics reached out to you after seeing you on the show?
NS: That’s the best part. Ever since the show started airing, I’ve been getting messages, mostly through Facebook. I’ve really never considered myself a diabetic role model, and for all of a sudden for people to be contacting me — it’s the most amazing feeling.
Spry: What kind of feedback do they give you?
NS: They’ve reached out even about things I wasn’t proud of. I was so embarrassed that my first blood sugar on the show was over 300. I’d been jet lagged, and we were racing and I didn’t feel good, and it was high. That was the first one they showed. I was like, “Why couldn’t they show when it was 120?” But I got a couple emails from people who said, “Thank you so much for doing that. I get 300 and I beat myself up.” So even just putting the hard parts out there helps people go a little bit easier on themselves. Diabetes is such a chronic thing. If you expect perfection, you’re going to just get frustrated and give up. It’s much better to give yourself a break for when things go a little too high or too low.
Spry: Most people are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as children. Are you hearing from parents, too?
NS: Yes. One mom contacted me, and her daughter was just diagnosed and they were watching the show from her daughter’s hospital room. She looked at her little girl and said, “That girl’s diabetic.” So it’s truly a gift. People who have been type 1 for 20 years know they can go out and do a lot of stuff, but oftentimes it’s the parents of newly diagnosed kids who need the most support. They seem to benefit the most from having an example. Everyone gets terrified. They haven’t been thinking about diabetes ever before, and all of a sudden this huge bomb drops on the whole family. I think that’s the time period where it really helps them to have these examples of diabetics who race bikes or are professional athletes or who do “The Amazing Race.” It helps them know that their child is going to have a full life.
Follow Nat’s post-race adventures on Facebook.