How do you explain to a young child with diabetes why her parents are hurting her with finger pricks and insulin injections every day? Hollywood producer Rocky Lang is one dad who struggled with that dilemma. In 2001, his ten-year-old daughter, Nikki, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. She handled her diagnosis remarkably well. But then a short time later, Lara, his ex-wife’s daughter from her new marriage, was diagnosed with diabetes at only 18 months. Rocky compared the diagnosis of the two girls, and could see how difficult it was for a very young child to handle all the pricks and pokes while not understanding why.
“Lara was so young and had no idea of what was happening,” Rocky says. “It was gut-wrenching. So I wrote a book for her.” That book is the popular children’s book on diabetes called Lara Takes Charge, which has sold over 15,000 copies. It tells the story of a girl, Lara, who lives and plays all while managing her diabetes with her glucose meter and insulin pump.
As Lara grew up, Rocky was inspired to create a doll that could help Lara understand more about her diabetes. “I saw how a doll could really help her. The first time I realized it, she was crying after a blood glucose test. I went over to Toys R Us and looked around, and then fabricated a doll for her, using a car door opener as a meter, and a garage door opener as a pump. I just put something together so she could take care of the doll in the same way she was being cared for.”
What started out as a homemade toy has now grown into a foundation: Rocky’s Joe Toucan Diabetes Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating children about diabetes by providing a doll that is both nurturing and educational. The name Joe Toucan is a play on the phrase “You Too Can take care of your diabetes.”
Rocky explains, “Joe is a non-threatening doll that begins to teach the child what diabetes is about and how to take care of it. We advise that the health care team and parents tell the child, ‘You take care of Joe and mom, dad and your health care team will take care of you.’ Joe also comes with his own miniature equipment, so the child is introduced to carb counting, insulin delivery, and BG testing.”
Rocky and his team are not the first or only folks to envision a diabetes-teaching-toy of this nature. The winners of last year’s Most Creative category in the DiabetesMine Design Challenge came up with a similar product called Jerry the Bear. A Google search also reveals a patent from 1998 for a stuffed toy to educate children with diabetes. However, none of these, including Joe Toucan, have quite made it to market yet. Rocky and his business partner Larry Goldfarb, are discovering just how difficult that step can be. They’re currently looking for a company or grant to help take the prototype Joe Toucan to the next level, and have struggled finding financial support from Big Pharma, which claims there just isn’t a big enough market for type 1 children. Very disappointing.
Among diabetes educators, it’s quite a different story. Rocky and Larry presented Joe at the recent AADE conference in San Antonio this summer, where he was enthusiastically embraced. The Joe Toucan Diabetes Project has received quite a bit of support from their advisory board, which includes tennis champion Billie Jean King and basketball star Adam Morrison, along with several endocrinologists.
Rocky says he’s not out to make money, anyway. His mission is this: “I am all about the child and how to empower them to live productive and healthy lives.” He certainly knows what he is talking about. He was recognized as Father of the Year in 2008 by the American Diabetes Association, and his daughter Nikki is now 18 and an accomplished singer. “I want [children] to know that their disease need not derail them and so I create products that support those goals.”
Yes — please know that we, the PWDs support you, Rocky. Viva la Joe Toucan!