This article appears in the January issue of 400 Life.
On a recent Friday, Tom Lennon was walking through OneLife Fitness, where he works as a personal trainer, when he was stopped by another diabetic. The customer asked him to talk with a friend whose son had recently been diagnosed with diabetes, and Lennon didn’t hesitate.
“Can I have just a few minutes?” Lennon said to a reporter, and off he went.
This is routine enough for Lennon now. He’s shared the story of his diagnosis and life with type-1 diabetes countless times. Lennon works part-time as a patient care technician at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA) where he’s comforted families disoriented by their child’s diagnosis. He started a fitness apparel company, called Type-1 Fitness, and he engages with the more than 3,000 followers of its Instagram account. Sometimes, when he sees a stranger in public wearing a blood sugar-monitoring device, he’ll stop them.
“I’m like, ‘Hey, you’re a diabetic too!’ Kind of spark a conversation,” Lennon said. “It’s like seeing an almost-extinct animal in the wild.”
Lennon was born in Sharon, Massachusetts, a suburb 30 minutes south of Boston, and relished his upbringing. He was diagnosed with a learning disability at 5 years old, but Lennon was otherwise carefree with supportive parents. He played basketball, football and soccer, and he excelled enough in football to earn a scholarship to play at Curry College, a small private school just 30 minutes from home, where he studied graphic design.
A graphic design job was hard to find out of college, so he worked as a security guard at a hospital. That became unfulfilling, so Lennon joined the Air Force. He became a medic with the goal to eventually become a nurse, and he thrived for awhile, even earning the honor as the top airman for a ground medical unit in 2011. Seven years in, Lennon had married, and he and his wife talked of moving to Georgia. Lennon left the Air Force and got hired at CHOA.
During the hiring process, Lennon had the option of getting a blood test, and he was eager to take it (“I’m always interested in seeing where I’m at,” Lennon said.) The results startled him: his blood sugar level was 390 mg/dL, well above the maximum healthy level of 140 mg/dL two hours after eating.
Lennon stewed for a couple days.
“I was pretty bummed out, I ain’t gonna lie,” Lennon said. “I’ve lived my life 34 years, no issues, and then all of a sudden get this.”
But dwelling on his predicament was not in Lennon’s nature. “I’m not a real negative person,” he said, and so he, with the help of his wife, resolved to make the necessary changes to his lifestyle. He dug into research to learn more about the condition that affects about 1.25 million Americans, according to the American Diabetes Association, whose pancreas doesn’t produce the insulin their body needs to get glucose from the bloodstream into cells. He started to check his blood sugar level every three to four hours and regularly take insulin. He continued to exercise. He made a meal plan: oatmeal in the morning, sandwich wraps for lunch, Greek yogurt and frozen berries and gluten-free protein bars for snacks. For dessert? Sugar-free Jello (“Best friend in the whole world,” he said.)
That formula — adequate exercise, a healthy diet and consistently monitoring his blood sugar level — worked. For example, within nine months, Lennon’s A1C level, which is a measure of the amount of glucose in a person’s blood, was down from 11.5 percent to 5.8 percent, right near the healthy limit of 5.7 percent.
And more and more, Lennon came to accept his life with diabetes.
“I didn’t want to let it get to me,” Lennon said. “I was like, OK, I have this, just live with it, roll with the punches and do the best that I can.”
Lennon saw that it wasn’t so easy for others, particularly newly diagnosed children and their parents. One moment still stands out. About two years ago, while at CHOA, Lennon encountered the mother of a 5-year-old girl who was newly diagnosed. Lennon remembers the mother was emotional as she talked to a doctor in the hallway. “She looked absolutely miserable,” Lennon said.
Lennon walked into the girl’s room and struck an optimistic chord. “Welcome to the diabetes club,” he said, much to the mother’s shock. “The mom looked at me like, ‘What is wrong with you?’” Lennon said. Undeterred, Lennon spelled out his diabetes story to the girl and her mother, hoping it might assuage their fears.
The encounter also left Lennon inspired to find other ways to help the diabetes community. He gravitated toward his passion for T-shirts (Lennon, like many others, will buy T-shirts any time he visits a new CrossFit gym) and fitness. Type-1 Lifting seemed like an appropriate name, and Lennon used his graphic design skills to create the logo of a silhouetted man lifting a barbell with a light-blue circle, the international symbol for diabetes, on both ends.
Lennon then set about starting the company. He tested T-shirt material. He vetted screen printers. He searched for an organization to donate some of his profits to, eventually settling on the American Diabetes Association.
Type-1 Lifting started slow, but it gradually caught on through word of mouth. Lennon would tell his clients at OneLife and his co-workers at CHOA about the venture. A social media following grew, particularly on Instagram, where Lennon has met other diabetics whom he exchanges lifestyle and medical tips with. A few years into the business, Lennon has donated almost $1,000 to the American Diabetes Association.
“I would like Type-1 Lifting to be a well-known brand in the fitness industry,” Lennon said. “I want it to be known as a great company giving back to diabetics.”
If Type-1 Lifting did become a prominent brand, Lennon figures his message, for those newly diagnosed to push through their initial fears, could reach more people.
Diabetes still provides Lennon with plenty of trying moments. Lennon and his wife recently went on vacation to Charleston, S.C., before their second child was born, and his blood sugar level stayed elevated in the 300s the entire trip. Lennon wasn’t sure of the cause. Maybe it was all the restaurant food? Maybe it was not being in his routine?
“The whole time I was frustrated,” Lennon said.
But Lennon’s naturally optimistic outlook took over. He sat on the beach, read a book, and told himself the same thing he tells anyone he encounters at CHOA or OneLife Fitness or anywhere who is facing a new life as a diabetic.
“Just roll with the punches,” Lennon said, “and everything’s going to be fine.”