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Sotomayor opens up to children about diabetes

The Supreme Court justice talks about growing up with the disease — an experience, she says, that was 'not that different from yours.'

June 22, 2011|By Christine Mai-Duc, Washington Bureau
  • Sonia Sotomayor was the first Latino to join the Supreme Court, and also the first diabetic.
Sonia Sotomayor was the first Latino to join the Supreme Court, and also… (Charles Rex Arbogast, Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — The first time Sonia Sotomayor was tested for diabetes, a lab technician sat her down in a big chair and assured her the needle in his hand would not hurt her. "I kept watching this big needle coming to my arm, and I looked at him and I said, 'Oh, it's going to hurt.' "

The 7-year-old Sotomayor hopped off the chair and ran out of the hospital, hiding under a parked car, the hospital staff in pursuit. When they finally dragged her out to draw blood, "I was screaming so much I didn't feel the needle," she said, to knowing chuckles from the audience.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Tuesday spoke publicly in detail for the first time about her childhood struggles with the debilitating disease, talking to a gathering of about 150 diabetic children and their families. Few Supreme Court justices, who live and work mostly in seclusion compared with other Washington officeholders, have spoken so candidly about their personal struggles.

At the panel, which was part of the Children's Congress of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the youths listened to the story of her diagnosis, which she insisted was "not that different from yours."

First, she noticed she was thirsty all the time. Then she began wetting her bed. "I was ashamed," she said. One Sunday morning, Sotomayor fainted at church and was rushed to the hospital.

There, she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. It was the first time, she recalls, she saw her mother cry. "I thought to myself … well, if it isn't so bad, why is my mommy crying? And I was a little scared."

Nearly 50 years later, doctors still don't know the exact cause of the disease, which renders the pancreas unable to produce insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar.

But Sotomayor assured the children, some as young as 5, that their options were limitless. "You get to do anything you want in life, because I have," she assured them, adding that she has the job of her dreams, "a really cool job."

When Sotomayor was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2009, she became the first Latino to sit on the bench. She is also the first known diabetic to hold the position. The issue was raised during her confirmation because of data that suggested her life span could be shortened by as many as 10 years. Experts, however, called it a nonissue, saying proper care and monitoring can allow diabetics to live full, healthy lives.

Talks to bring the justice to the Children's Congress began almost immediately after she was appointed, said Jeff Brewer, president of the research foundation. "To see the kids look up to those role models and say, there can be diabetes with no limits, is a very powerful message," said Aaron Kowalski, an assistant vice president.

Sotomayor talked about how as a child she had to have her blood sugar tested with razor blades instead of finger pricks, give up regular soda for the dreaded no-calorie brands, and wake up early to boil water and sterilize syringes before school. She said she was so small she had to drag a chair over to the stove.

Eventually, Sotomayor said, the acts became routine and even taught her discipline. "That discipline helped me … in every aspect of my life," she said.

christine.mai-duc@latimes.com

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