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Personal Stories

Supreme Court Judge and T1D: Sonia Sotomayor

From her humble Bronx beginnings, lawyer, writer and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor shatters glass ceilings every step of the way. As she overcomes her own adversity, she removes barriers for others following in her footsteps and manages her type 1 diabetes with ease.

Supreme Court Judge and T1D: Sonia Sotomayor

Sonia Sotomayor is one of nine judges serving as Supreme Court Justice of the United States (SCOTUS). To this appointment, she also brought something else to the bench that no one else ever had. When she was seven years old, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and has lived with the condition for 62 years.

A Diabetes Inspiration

During World War II, Sotomayor’s parents immigrated from Puerto Rico to the Bronx, New York. Her family went to Mass on a Sunday morning, where Sotomayor ended up fainting. The nuns encouraged her mother, a nurse, to take her to the doctor.

She was drinking excess amounts of water and anything else she could because of her out-of-control high blood sugar. Sotomayor said that a parent often desires not to see what's right in front of their face because they fear learning something they don't want to know. The experience of having a child diagnosed with a chronic disease is terrifying for parents. And as much as most parents try to hide their fear, they should always remember that their kids have a sixth sense. 

When diagnosed in 1962, she explains, “the treatment of juvenile diabetes was primitive by today’s standards, and life expectancy was much shorter.” During that time, most diagnosed with diabetes were not expected to survive beyond 50. After her diagnosis at seven and a half, she began taking care of the condition herself. She says that “living with this disease taught her self-reliance.” She soon learned to sterilize her own needles and inject herself with insulin.” 

Judge Sotomayor has diligently worked hard to prove the “expected” age has a longer, healthier standard today.

 At that time, there weren’t many treatment options, and those in place were not easy. Blood sugar levels were tested using a urine sample strip, which could be inaccurate. 

 “At least for me, as a child, there was a natural abhorrence to a sense of pity, and I didn’t want people to think that I was damaged or unclean,” Sotomayor wrote in her biography, My Beloved World. “Those are the words I’m using because those are the feelings that I vaguely thought as a child.”

“My escape, maybe my life salvation, was found in books. And I found a way to escape the misery around me by reading. It became my rocket ship out of the sadness. And it opened an entire world to me. She adds, “You’ve got to get your education! It’s the only way to get ahead in the world.”

“Until we get equality in education, we won't have an equal society. I do know one thing about me: I don't measure myself by others' expectations or let others define my worth.” Sonia Sotomayor

Her father suffered from alcoholism and died when she was nine. After his death, she studied and read Nancy Drew's suspense and crime-solving books. This became an almost critical part of her life and influenced her choice of law. Whenever Sotomayor couldn’t find answers to her questions in a book, she would ask family, friends, and colleagues. She was always determined to find answers. 

An Imperfect Childhood

Judge Sotomayor received her love of reading from her mother and knew that education was the only way to get ahead. During her childhood, her mother worked hard to ensure that she and her younger brother received an education that would give them every opportunity.

Even though the Judge was smart and determined, her family lacked the financial resources and the knowledge to help her navigate the pathways to success. Yet having to contend with challenges didn't stop Sotomayor's rise — in fact, they helped forge her already strong character into one that persevered and grew even in the face of failure.

Sotomayor earned her undergraduate degree at Princeton and then her law degree at Yale Law School. Judge Sotomayor lived a life of poverty and an imperfect childhood, yet she held a strong value for education that her mother embedded.

“You have no idea how hard Princeton was for me at the beginning, but I figured out how to do well there and ended up being accepted to one the best law schools in the country. I’ve spent my whole life learning how to do things that were hard for me. None of it has ever been easy.”

Keeping Secrets

Judge Sotomayor kept her diabetes mostly private for many years. My Beloved World tells her story, from growing up with two Puerto Rican parents in the Bronx to being appointed by President Obama into the highest court in the country. “At the age at which I was diagnosed — we’re talking decades ago in the early 1960s — diseases of any kind were secrets. People just didn’t talk about having a condition of any kind. It was considered impolite, of bad form.”

By her 20s and early 30s, “everybody on some level knew that I had diabetes,” Sotomayor wrote. “It wasn’t that I never said the word ‘diabetes,’ but it wasn’t something I talked about with people. I certainly didn’t then the way I do now. As I grew older, I realized that my diabetes is integral to who I am. It's taught me so much about discipline, about moderation, about things that most people should do themselves without diabetes: how to eat sensibly, how to exercise, how to watch yourself when you're sick. I'm careful about my care ‘cause I understand that only with care can I live a healthy and full life.” 

Even with advances like insulin pumps, Sotomayor still injects her insulin using a syringe. As she grew up, syringe insulin injections were the only option for many years. She does use a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) to track her blood sugar.

Advancements at Work

She began her career as an assistant district attorney, working in a trial unit prosecuting everything from petty crimes to homicides. At 25, Sotomayor joined a private practice in NYC, where she excelled and made partner in 1988. 

Sotomayor was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by President George H. W. Bush in 1991, and her confirmation followed in 1992. Her nomination was confirmed unanimously on August 11, 1992, making her the youngest judge to join the Southern District court, the first Hispanic federal judge in New York history, and the first Puerto Rican woman to serve as a judge in the federal judiciary.

Over six years, she presided over approximately 450 cases. In 1994, she ruled over the Major League Baseball dispute with the players’ union. After the 232-day strike, Sotomayor decided in the players’ favor and became “the judge who saved baseball.”

In 1997, President Bill Clinton nominated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and soon after, President Barack Obama nominated her to the United States Supreme Court. She filled the vacancy left by retired Justice David Souter and became the third woman and the first person of Latin American descent to join the court in its 220-year history. Judge Sotomayor has served as a Supreme Court Justice since August 2009. 

Judge Sotomayor said she still takes four to six shots a day, sometimes right before taking the bench, to stay sharp for lengthy oral arguments. Diabetes, she added, is “a great way to learn how to multi-task.” 

Vigilant Diabetes Management

Judge Sotomayor attributes her successful diabetes management to being vigilant with insulin injections and testing often. Carrying glucose tablets wherever she goes is another key to maintaining her high-powered career. Type 1 diabetes affects people from all aspects of life, and Judge Sotomayor has used her position to help raise diabetes awareness.

My Beloved World was not about telling you what I didn’t know,” Sotomayor said. “But it was about showing you what I learned. It's taught me so much about discipline. At a certain point, I understood that if I weren't open about my disease or got sick in front of a friend, they wouldn't know what to do. And it happened, actually, at a party where I had almost blacked out, and none of my friends knew that I was having a low-sugar reaction. I could have died simply because I wasn't open to my friends. I no longer hide it. Sometimes, in the past, I would take insulin in the bathroom, but they wouldn't serve food fast enough, so I’ve learned to do it at the table to avoid a low-sugar reaction.”

A Tricky Business

Insulin starts working 15 minutes after taking it, but how fast you have to eat depends on your sugar level. The lower you are, you sometimes don't take it before. You eat first and then take the shot. Sometimes, if you're very high, you must take it earlier to kick in and lower your blood sugar before eating. The care of diabetes requires a lot of thought and perseverance.

"I’m completely honest about the many adversities in my life," Sotomayor stated. "One of my main lessons is to always ask for help."

Sotomayor began doing this very young, wanting to improve in school, asking questions and seeking pointers on studying. She applied this approach at Princeton as well.

Building Barricades

“You can lie down and let the truck run you over. Or you can get up and build the barricades," Sotomayor told a crowd of progressives at the American Constitution Society convention in Washington. "I don't mean this literally; I mean it figuratively. Look, there are days I get discouraged. There are moments where I am deeply, deeply disappointed. And yes, there have been moments when I've stopped and asked, 'Is this worth it anymore?' And every time I do that, I lick my wounds for a while. Sometimes I cry. And then I say, OK -- let's fight.”

The moral of her story is, “You get to do anything you want in life because I have. I now have the job of my dreams. I’m a Supreme Court justice, and it’s a really cool job.”

As a T1D, her words are inspiring and show that type one diabetes is not a deterrent to achieving any and all of your dreams. With a will, there is definitely a way, as Judge Sotomayor has shown. 

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