We’ve heard so many people in the Diabetes Community say it feels like “starting over” when a diabetes diagnosis enters their world, because they have to learn and re-wire their brains with so much D-info.
But D-Mom Jamie Wolf in South Carolina has had to start over in more ways than one since that day more than 15 years ago, when her daughter Pamela “LaLa” Jackson, now 26, was diagnosed at age 10. The diagnosis gave Jamie the “entrepreneurial bug” as she calls it, inspiring her to create a company aimed at helping people with diabetes. She even got as far as FDA approval for a product (!) that was novel in its time, just before smartphones and wireless communication exploded as it has now. Think Glooko cable or glucose meters talking wirelessly to the data cloud… except as it might have existed back in 2003! The connection would have linked meters to a device that would have then communicated wirelessly to phones or websites to allow data sharing and analysis.
Life happened, though, and that product never materialized. Jamie was forced to start over in a new state, but she used that experience to not only spread her wings but teach her daughter how to thrive… All with diabetes in tow, of course!
She took some time to share her story with us, and let us know about the exciting things that Pamela is up to these days:
A Guest Post by Jamie Wolf
When my daughter Pamela was 10 she went to a new school. We were living in Seattle at the time. The teachers started calling. They said they weren’t sure it was the right place for her, she wasn’t paying attention, she seemed sleepy or unhappy all the time. She began to lose weight. But when I took her to various doctors they suggested that she was just going through pre-teen issues. Then at 2 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning, we rushed her unconscious – all 65 pounds of her by then – to the ER, where she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
I’ll never forget that early morning nightmare. She had been wearing a choker spelling her name, Pamela, made from little beads with letters. After trying to get an IV line into her arms, her hands, her feet, they gave up and decided to use a jugular catheter. It was like a TV show, where the ER team rushes about and pushes family members aside. I felt that I was in the way, relegated to watching helplessly as they worked from all angles on her little limp body. When, without hesitation, they cut her choker from her neck, each letter of her name fell in slow motion to the floor, bouncing and scattering in all directions. Thankfully, they were able to stabilize her and transport her to another hospital.
My head was ringing from the impact of the ER doctor’s words, “Your daughter has diabetes mellitus.” Honestly, I’m not even sure I fully knew what it meant.
After getting the news and watching them struggle to find a way to get a catheter into her, I started vomiting in the hospital bathroom and couldn’t stop. They took me away, hooked me to an IV, and started treating me for a migraine attack. When they put Pamela into an ambulance to transport her to Children’s Hospital they refused to discharge me. But as any mother can tell you, I didn’t take someone telling me what I could and couldn’t do, not while they were taking my child away. Shortly after she left I climbed into the car and wearily made my blurry way in the dark and the rain to that other hospital, a place I came to know so well.
After three days there, Pamela was able to come home. It was a new life for all of us, a life with type 1 diabetes.
A New Chapter
Five years after Pamela’s diagnosis, we moved to Hawaii where only one pediatric endocrinologist served the entire civilian population. He was an older gentleman with no use for research, biding his time until retirement. He told us that my daughter was fine. He said she didn’t need to come back to see him for a year. He also said she had high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and excessive protein in her blood. She was only 15 years old. I knew then that I had to find a way to help my daughter to help herself.
So I started a company aimed at helping people with diabetes.
Called Palaistra Systems at first when I founded it in 2003, it was later renamed Confidant after a massive rebranding effort. I had a full-time job at the time, so I relied on my unemployed husband to help me with things like conducting research, writing a business plan and looking for investment funds. Within a year, I was able to quit my job and become the Chief Science Officer and Co-Founder of the company.
We created something that was novel at the time (think pre-app, and smart phones as we have them today). Our hardware translated data so it could be transmitted wirelessly. That hardware was wired into glucose meters, scales, blood pressure cuffs and then allowed that data to be converted and transmitted wirelessly to a cell phone. We then also created software with artificial intelligence so the data could be analyzed for trends and different events could trigger different actions. For instance, “compliance” is always an issue. It was important to note that if a young person was supposed to check five times a day and consistently missed the check just before sports class, an alert could be sent and it could be escalated. So first an alert might get sent to a teacher’s cell phone, and then it might get sent in the form of a text message to a parent’s cell phone. Then, if three weeks went by with 25% of required readings simply being missed, an alert might go to the case manager/nurse, etc. It was NOT an emergency system. It never triggered a 911 call. It never called an MD.
We expanded to applying the system to congestive heart failure, but it could also be used for adult diabetics when their adult children were trying to help monitor but had their own busy lives.
We never really named the product, but at one point thought about following the “Powered by Intel” slogan with our own: “Powered by Pamela.” We raised money, ran clinical trials, and raised $2 million in venture capital. With that little money and a very small team, we got FDA clearance in less than 18 months – start to finish – for both hardware and software so it was a pretty miraculous accomplishment! It was an incredibly intense and heady period, and for a while I really thought we were going to make a huge impact on the world!
But I now know that I made almost every classic mistake an entrepreneur can make. I didn’t understand the importance of a management team. I didn’t spend enough time figuring out where the money would come from. I didn’t give enough thought to controlling the board. I just knew that I was helping my daughter while successfully growing a new business. We moved to the East Coast after Pamela graduated from high school and went on to college, allowing us to be closer to our contract employees and investors.
Things were unraveling and I didn’t know it. I was the only woman employee, the only woman Board Member, and the venture capitalists kept emphasizing that a husband-wife team ran the company. In their eyes, I was becoming a liability to further investment. I began to notice that meetings were being held without me, trips were being scheduled without me, and our marriage was becoming strained.
Eventually, my husband took over the company and we divorced. The company was ripped so suddenly, wrenchingly and unexpectedly from me, and ultimately the company just faded away – the product never got to market. But I did learn a lot. With the advent of new technology and apps there are tons of products available now offering very similar results and outcomes. We were ahead of our time in a lot of ways. And I definitely got bit by the entrepreneurial bug!
Starting Over, Again
After moving to another state and working as a grocery store cashier, I eventually landed another full-time job and was able to rebuild my career and life. Eventually, I remarried and life was great for all of us. I’m now working as an entrepreneurial consultant on my own.
But mostly, I’m proud of Pamela. She went to a private school at the time of her diagnosis, so there was no school nurse. She took it on herself to educate her teachers and fellow students, and never hid that she was “different” as far as living with diabetes. After our move to Hawaii, she won the Hawaiian language award at her school even though she was one of just a handful of “haoli” (white) students there. She was accepted early at the age of 16 into the University of Miami in Florida, and while there she was selected for Clinton’s Global Initiative. When she graduated, she was inducted into the Iron Arrow Society, the highest honor attained at the university. Pamela tried to go into the Peace Corps – her teeth passed, but ultimately they decided they couldn’t manage her diabetes in a French-speaking West African country where she’d be assigned.
When she graduated from UM she went to work in Atlanta for the German-American Chamber of Commerce and finally got her own insurance. She was the only non-German-speaking person in an office of 30 people and was quickly promoted; she ran their marketing and events department. When tornadoes devastated one of the states in the chamber’s region, she organized a rescue and relief mission. She left there and took another job and has been promoted there in under a year. She’s in the marketing department of a medical software company hitting the INC charts – and got the CEO’s endorsement so now she’s just been accepted into a master’s program for public health. She wants to major in health economics and policy because she figures numbers are the key drivers when it comes to global health.
That entrepreneurial bug has even hit Pamela, as she’s now started her own company! It’s called Haloa Body Company, which she founded in February and it started from a wish to lead a more health-filled life. She makes all-natural bath and body products, and she’s using that as a channel to write and present about chronic health issues and how we can all address them through eating healthier, increasing activity, and reforming policies to support healthier living.
I’m a mom, so maybe I can’t say this without being biased – but to me she’s such a rock star! Diabetes has NOT gotten in her way, nor has she tried to minimize it. That’s all that any diabetes mom could ask for, right?
Sounds like Pamela’s taking after her mom… Thanks for sharing your story, Jamie, and we can’t wait to see what LaLa does in influencing health care discussions down the road!