A Newton South High School senior who was honored as the Merritt Levitan Youth Ambassador said she will serve as a role model for people living with Type 1 diabetes, especially children who can become more isolated.
Noa Asher, 17, was this year’s honoree at the Joslin Diabetes Center’s High Hopes Gala, which was held virtually Nov. 14. Asher was chosen for the position because of her appreciation for the “multidisciplinary care” it takes to manage Type 1 diabetes, said Dr. Lori Laffel, a pediatric endocrinologist and clinical investigator at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston.
The award is named for Merritt Levitan, an 18-year-old patient at Joslin from Milton, who was on a 3,000-mile cross-country bicycle tour in 2013 when she was killed by a distracted driver in Arkansas.
Laffel said the youth ambassador acts as a face for those living with Type 1 — insulin dependent — diabetes as well as a role model for others, especially young people living with the condition.
“Diabetes can feel very lonely and isolating, and I think to be the Merritt Levitan Youth Ambassador, it tries to remove some of that isolation,” Laffel said.
Asher was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes a few weeks shy of her 12th birthday, and said she struggled with feelings of isolation about her condition.
“I was the only one in my school that had it,” she said. “It’s hard, you know, being like that, because as much as I’m grateful for having support from my friends and family, you want to have somebody in your life that knows what you’re going through.”
Asher said it was difficult to come to terms with her diagnosis. She began wearing an insulin pump and carrying around a bag of medical supplies with her wherever she went. In school, she would go to the nurse before gym class to ensure she was safe to participate and make her own lunches to ensure they were safe for her to eat.
“I always thought of it as a burden, and from there that’s just a terrible mindset,” she said. “I was in self-denial, to put it that way. I was like, you know what? I don’t have diabetes. I’m a regular person.”
After a few years of living with Type 1 diabetes, Asher said she had a change of heart and decided to get involved with volunteer opportunities — embracing her diagnosis rather than hiding it away.
“I just remember sitting with myself and I said, ‘How can I be a role model to kids and to kids with diabetes when I couldn’t even accept myself?’ ” she said. “I think it’s necessary to admit to yourself that you are diabetic, and the reason being is that’s how you live your day to day.”
In her role as the Merritt Levitan Youth Ambassador, Asher said she wants to help children with diabetes feel less isolated. She plans to create a website where people living with Type 1 diabetes can share their stories, speak at online events, and organize fund-raisers to raise awareness.
“I think it’s important for kids to see other kids with diabetes and just to make bonds with that,” Asher said.
Ayelet Malka-Asher, Noa’s mother, said her daughter is “very resilient,” and believes the opportunity to be the Merritt Levitan Youth Ambassador will have a positive impact on her daughter and the diabetic community.
“I think it’s an opportunity to carry her message and to communicate the message, and raise awareness for Type 1 diabetes,” Malka-Asher said. “I think it will contribute to her in increasing self-confidence, in the ability to speak up, to talk about things, and to be a role model for other people.”
Laffel said she hopes by hearing Asher’s story, others will feel they are not alone in their journey.
“Even by speaking up and sharing how she herself has Type 1 diabetes is in itself a heroic thing to do because it allows others to see how diabetes doesn’t get in the way of her future,” Laffel said.
Asher said the most important message she wants to give others living with Type 1 diabetes is how it’s important to find a balance between living freely and managing the condition.
“You’re the only person that will define what you want diabetes to do with your life,” she said.
Ali Audet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.