Doctor uses own journey with Type 1 diabetes to help patients

When Ryan J. Dyess, M.D., treats kids with Type 1 diabetes, he knows well what his patients are going through. Dr. Dyess has dealt with Type 1 for most of his life.

He is the Norah Price fellow in pediatric endocrinology at Norton Children’s Hospital, but his lifelong experience with Type 1 diabetes goes back to his diagnosis at age 9, after his parents first realized something was wrong during a family vacation.

“I had no energy and was thirsty nonstop,” Dr. Dyess said. “I started drinking Gatorade, which made things worse. My parents knew something was up when I then wanted water constantly — I was never a water drinker.”

When they returned home, his parents took him to his pediatrician. His blood sugar was off the charts. He was admitted to the hospital where the diagnosis came. It was a life-altering discovery.

“Our whole world changed,” he said. “I had to completely adjust my lifestyle, from what I ate to learning about insulin injections to monitoring my blood sugar. That’s a lot for a kid and family to take in and deal with.”

Diagnosis leads to becoming a doctor

As a teen, he didn’t aspire to become a doctor. Instead, he found a passion for technology and earned his computer science degree.

“Technology is so fascinating,” he said. “It’s constantly evolving and it enhances everything it touches.”

But after graduation, he started thinking about medical school. He thought he could combine his experience with Type 1 diabetes with his love of technology to advance the field and help people.

“I experienced firsthand how technology has revolutionized diabetes care,” he said. “When I was a kid, I gave myself several insulin injections each day, had to wait an hour to eat, and monitored my blood sugar with a finger prick and a test strip. Now, we have insulin pumps and glucose monitoring that creates more flexibility. It’s exciting to see how research and technology have improved people’s lives. I wanted to be a part of that movement.”

Choosing Norton Children’s

When Dr. Dyess, a West Coast native, was looking to do his fellowship, he interviewed all over the country. He chose the University of Louisville School of Medicine because of its reputation. The program is affiliated with the Wendy Novak Diabetes Center and Norton Children’s Hospital, which has a strong national reputation for diabetes care. The Norton Children’s Hospital program is ranked in the top 20 in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report. It’s also one of only a few hospitals to have a Certificate of Distinction for Inpatient Diabetes Care.

“I was very impressed with the program,” Dr. Dyess said. “They’re extremely interested in technology and the advancement of diabetes treatment. Everyone is focused on helping people. Their goals matched my own.”

Dr. Dyess is part of a three-year advanced training program where he’s gaining skills to specialize in endocrinology.

Using his story to help other patients

Whether it’s with a child recently diagnosed, a teen going through lifestyle changes or an adult whose been living with Type 1 for years, Dr. Dyess can relate. He uses his own personal journey to help his patients find light in times of darkness.

“When patients are first diagnosed, it can be really scary,” he said. “Having someone who can say, ‘Hey look, you can get through this. I know what you’re going through’ can help. Just telling some of the stories that I’ve had about when I was first diagnosed or experiences that I’ve had growing up seems to put patients at ease.”

He’s also very honest about his own journey.

“I still get frustrated with having Type 1 at times,” he said. “There are days when it starts to get me down, but I don’t let it keep me down. Diabetes changes your life, but it doesn’t have to control your life.”

Future of diabetes care

Dr. Dyess has experienced the evolution of diabetes treatment for more than 25 years. He’s excited to see what the next few decades have in store.

“Patients with Type 1 have more flexibility than ever before,” he said. “We’re starting to see ‘closed loop systems’ that combine a continuous glucose monitor and an insulin pump to regulate a user’s glucose with less work required from the patient. I think we’ll see more of these hit the market soon.”

He feels smart devices also will play a role in diabetes care.

“So much information and technology are already integrated through our smartphones and watches,” he said. “I expect these devices eventually will allow patients to see all sorts of data anytime they want. Not only will this help them manage their condition but also allow them more freedom and flexibility than ever before.”

The Norah Price fellow was funded by the Norton Children’s Hospital Foundation through a gift from the Price Foundation. Here are ways you can help.