When Sotomayor was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2009, she became the… (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago…)
WASHINGTON--The first time Justice 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 gonna hurt.' "
The 7-year-old Sotomayor hopped off the chair and ran out of the hospital, slipping beneath a parked car, the hospital staff in hot pursuit. When they finally dragged her out to draw blood, "I was screaming so much, I didn't feel the needle," she said, prompting knowing chuckles from the audience.
Sotomayor spoke out in detail publicly for the first time Tuesday about her childhood struggles with the debilitating disease, talking to a gathering of about 150 diabetic children as young as 5 and their families. Few Supreme Court justices, who live and work mostly in seclusion compared with other Washington officeholders, have spoken so candidly in public about their personal struggles.
At the panel, which is part of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation's Children's Congress, the children listened to the story of her diagnosis, one 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 recalled, that 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 what causes the disease, which renders the pancreas unable to produce insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar.
But Sotomayor assured an unusually engrossed group of children 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. "It's 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 much as 10 years. Experts, however, called it a non-issue, 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 Jeffrey 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 use razor blades instead of finger pricks to test her blood sugar, give up regular soda for the dreaded No-Cal brand, 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 to complete the task. Eventually, Sotomayor said, the acts became routine and even taught her discipline. "That discipline helped me…in every aspect of my life," she said.