When I was 9 years old, suddenly finding out I would have to inject myself with insulin and watch what I ate every day was quite a heavy load. But Mary Tyler Moore gave me hope that I was gonna make it after all.
Back then, in 1973, she was the only famous person I knew with Type 1 diabetes. She never looked depressed or unhappy – quite the opposite. Daily shots couldn’t be that bad, I reasoned, if Mary can do it and still turn the world on with her smile.
Moore, who died Wednesday at the age of 80, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 33, just as The Mary Tyler Moore Show was getting off the ground. She would become a double hero for me, as much for the strong single working-woman character she portrayed on the show as for her real life, lived so fully with Type 1 diabetes.
Moore spent decades advocating for diabetes research and for people with diabetes, including testifying in front of Congress and public service campaigns for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, now known as JDRF. (The organization has set up a website for people to post tributes to Moore.)
Soon after my diagnosis, I wrote her a letter telling her how much she had helped me accept my diabetes. Weeks later, I received a beautiful autographed photo of her. The autograph was preprinted, but still … Maybe she’d actually read my letter!
In August 1997, I had the chance to meet her when she spoke during a ceremony held at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to announce three federally-funded projects related to diabetes, including one specifically for Type 1.
Then-President Bill Clinton thanked Moore for her “long, tireless and selfless efforts” and was whisked off at the end of the event. But she stayed, chatting with attendees. I shyly approached her and introduced myself as a medical journalist living with diabetes and writing about it for doctors. She shook my hand warmly. When I told her that I’d written to her as a child, she touched my arm and anxiously asked, “Did I reply?” When I told her that indeed she’d sent me a photo, she exclaimed, “Oh, thank goodness!”
Moore was a pioneer in not only going public with her diabetes, but taking it on as a cause, says Desmond Schatz, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of Florida. “She used her position, one of tremendous respect in the world, to raise awareness about Type 1 diabetes,” he says. “She has inspired and encouraged so many.”
She also served as a stoic model of acceptance of the disease, which which in her case meant taking four insulin injections a day and constant monitoring in an effort to keep her blood sugar in check, all while keeping up with the demands of a showbiz life. Later, as she developed complications from the condition, she spoke candidly about that as well.
Schatz, who is immediate past co-president of the American Diabetes Association, for which Moore also advocated, says: “Some people deny it. She was never in denial. For her it was ‘I have it, and I have to deal with it.’ She dealt with it.”
Many celebrities with diabetes have followed Moore’s advocacy lead, including Nick Jonas, Bret Michaels, Patti LaBelle and Tom Hanks. Other prominent advocates include Olympic gold medalist swimmer Gary Hall, Jr., Miss America 1999 Nicole Johnson, and Miss Idaho 2014 Sierra Sandison, who famously wore her insulin pump on her bikini for the state pageant and won.
But Mary Tyler Moore was out there first, and always with a smile.
Miriam E. Tucker is a freelance journalist specializing in medicine and health. You can follow her on Twitter @MiriamETucker.