Kyle Banks of ‘Kyler Cares’: “Diversity in Healthcare”

A leader is someone who stays the course even when life has not given them much reason to do so. A leader has faith and conviction; these two attributes can be revolutionary aspirations. Additionally, a leader has clarity of purpose. That way, in a room with voices and ideas, a leader will focus on the […]

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A leader is someone who stays the course even when life has not given them much reason to do so. A leader has faith and conviction; these two attributes can be revolutionary aspirations. Additionally, a leader has clarity of purpose. That way, in a room with voices and ideas, a leader will focus on the ones that get us closer to the goals of our mission. Leaders know how to look at a puzzle and decipher which pieces do and don’t fit with the bigger picture. In the support and advancement for type 1 diabetes, leadership means seeing new areas of need and then addressing them.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kyle Banks.

Kyle Banks is an actor and singer who has performed in several Broadway productions, most recently as a cast member in the Disney production of The Lion King. At the height of his career, Kyle lost 30 pounds, his confidence and his ability to shine on stage because he felt so weak; he knew something was wrong. Soon after, Kyle was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and has been working to manage his chronic condition ever since. Kyle started a non-profit foundation, Kyler Cares, which provides grants for insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors for kids living with type 1 diabetes.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

After studying classical music at the University of Oklahoma, I moved to New York City to pursue my dreams and shortly thereafter, I landed a role in The Lion King. The level of activity required for the show was intense — even for a person in perfect health. We perform eight shows a week, each lasting about three hours and I’m dancing and singing for almost the entire time. I started to notice that it was hard for me to keep up and I knew something wasn’t right.

I visited a doctor, explained my symptoms and after a glucose test, I was diagnosed with diabetes and while I still lacked an enormous amount of energy, I was eager to get back to work. After a brief stay in the hospital, I returned to work with high spirits, although truthfully, I had no idea how I was going to be able to maintain my lifestyle with my recent diagnosis. At first, I attempted to avoid low blood sugar levels by arriving to work with my glucose at a level of 200–250 mg, or sometimes higher (a person without diabetes average blood sugar level is around 100mg for context). However, I would still end up crashing by intermission or when the curtain finally came down. I knew there had to be tips or tricks on how to better manage my diagnosis out there somewhere.

I decided to reach out to Children’s Hospital of New Orleans because I was curious to see how kids who were really active were managing their diabetes. I knew there were correlations with levels of activity and I wanted to see if there were any tips I could find that could help me with the work I was doing with The Lion King. I thought I would gain helpful insights, but instead I learned that these kids were experiencing just as much difficulty as I was. Kids of color, especially, were at the top of the list of those with horrible outcomes; they are less likely to use technology and most likely to experience horrific side effects commonly associated with poor glucose control. Needless to say, this did not leave me in a good space mentally; I went there to learn more about how I could better manage my own glucose levels, but instead was saddened by what I discovered.

A few months into my T1D diagnosis, my physician suggested that I take some time off of work to allow my body to adjust to the new health circumstances that I was dealing with and figure out how to better take care of myself. I took this suggestion to heart during my time off and began researching all the latest studies and technological advancements in diabetes. I wasn’t a fan of social media, but I was amazed by how many people living with type 1 diabetes were using these platforms to connect and share intellectual information regarding their disease management.

I finally went back to work armed with all this new information and the outcome I had as a result was really amazing. Through my research, I had discovered the Omnipod System, a tubeless, wireless insulin pump, and this was a game changer for me. I was now able to make it through the duration of the show and not have to worry as much about my glucose levels. The combination of incorporating snacks and adjusting my Omnipod System settings to correlate with the amount of activity I would be exerting in a show proved a better way to manage my glucose. At the end of the show, I wasn’t experiencing the horrible “lows” anymore. Because I can literally adhere the Omnipod System to my body anywhere I would normally give myself an injection, I was able to wear my stage costume just like every other actor. Since the system is tubeless, I was able to perform without fear of my insulin pump being seen by anyone or the tubes getting tangled in my costume. My experience inspired me to share what I had learned was possible with regards to this disease; which was the true inspiration for the creation of my organization, Kyler Cares.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

The connections I’ve made since founding Kyler Cares have been the most interesting thing for me. These connections, plus the constant opportunity to make a difference in the lives of those with type 1 diabetes, is one of the reasons I remain excited about the work we’re doing. I’ve learned so much and have been inspired and empowered to take the driver’s seat as it relates to my own care. It’s so important that as a community of people living with this chronic illness, we’re able to connect and share our experiences over topics such as how we each go about glucose management. Discussions need to be had so we can all understand where we’re finding success, and most importantly, where we’re falling short.

I attended a panel discussion, Diabetics on the Margin, held in NYC in 2018. The panel was hosted by Ariel Lawrence of Just A Little Suga’, a wonderful organization that highlights the experiences of other people of color living with type 1 diabetes. I arrived at the location of the panel with my new puppy, Basal, a chocolate Miniature Schnauzer, and was surprised to see that another attendee had a dog by her side as well. Immediately following the panel, we gravitated toward one another, connecting over our shared love of dogs. I learned that my new friend’s name was Tonya and her beautiful Cavapoo’s name was Rambo, a diabetic alert dog. Until that moment I did not know that diabetic alert dogs were a thing. Tonya shared a wealth of information with me about how I could train Basal to alert me in advance of low or high blood sugar events before they occur. This was very interesting to me, especially given that I was still experiencing extreme glucose fluctuations at the time. If Basal could offer me more support, then I definitely wanted to train him to do so. Tonya and I remain friends to this day and Basal is not only a great furry companion, but also, an awesome support for me on my journey with diabetes.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting your organization? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

A few months ago, I was participating in a virtual dance class with this really great organization called Touched by Type 1. There were about 15 kids in the class who were all really excited about the routine they were learning, and that they would get to speak with me once the class had finished. You never know what mood the kids are going to be in, so it was a pleasant surprise to have them so enthused by my participation.

Afterwards, when it was time for questions, a young girl in the group shared how she was able to get her A1C down to a 7.4, which was fantastic. I had just personally had a similar experience; at a recent doctor’s appointment, my test results had come back the lowest they had ever been since I had been diagnosed, a 6.1 A1C. I excitedly blurted out my A1C test result right after she did before immediately realizing that I had just upstaged this kid. I felt so horrible. Luckily, the young girl was fine and didn’t take what I said to heart. This taught me the importance of being intentional with my words and putting extra thought in before I speak, especially as it relates to kids. I never want to be in a situation where I mistakenly insult or upset a child as it relates to how they manage their diabetes.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

As I continue to connect with people living with this disease, especially people of color, the following seem to be recurring themes: “I don’t feel as if I matter,” “I don’t feel as if my clinicians care,” or “I’ve never been offered technology for diabetes as a form of treatment.” Educating people of color on how to self-care and how to self-advocate is so powerful. I’ve also discovered the importance of teaching people of color how to navigate the healthcare system, which can be so daunting if you don’t know what to expect. We need to highlight people of color who are doing well with the disease, to other people of color so they can see that it’s possible to live well, be healthy, and still pursue all of the things they want to do in life. At Kyler Cares, we’re working to help educate people about type 1 diabetes and reinforce to people living with it that with the proper tools, they can achieve better management.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

We recently received a message from a young woman who just completed her BFA (Bachelor’s of Fine Arts) in musical theatre performance. She was feeling a lot of regret about her choice of major because she didn’t see how it would be possible for someone living with type 1 diabetes to pursue a professional career as a performer. Throughout her time in college, she had many of the same difficulties and experiences I had when I was first diagnosed.

While searching the internet for organizations related to “broadway” and “type 1 diabetes,” she came across “From Broadway With Love,” a benefit concert we produced through Kyler Cares that supports children and adults living with type 1 diabetes. She was so inspired that she reached out to me and we ended up chatting on the phone for over an hour. I shared my experiences and the fact that there are many others out there with successful performance careers that live with type 1 diabetes. Knowing that you’re not alone and that there are other people out there achieving what you’re trying to do can be so eye opening and motivating. She’s going to be working with us, teaching dance classes and participating in “From Broadway With Love” next year. I’m always pleased to see the direct impact Kyler Cares, and the community of those living with type 1 diabetes, can have on other individuals who are struggling.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Funding: The technology available to people with type 1 diabetes is extraordinary and there is no question that it has made an impact in the industry. However, this technology is expensive. It’s so important that we make these insulin devices more affordable and ensure people have what they need financially to access them. It’s also just as vital that there be sufficient funding for education in diabetes, specifically regarding the role nutrition plays in diabetes. In most states, Medicaid and Medicare don’t cover diabetes education, which is shocking. Nutrition plays such an integral role in one’s well-being; if you don’t know how to connect the two areas, it could lead to horrible outcomes.

Diversity in Healthcare: There has to be a better form of communication between clinicians and patients. Right now, there’s a breakdown between the clinician’s office and people of color. This is also leading to poor health outcomes. In general, we need greater representation across healthcare professionals; whether this means more black and brown doctors, or Caucasian physicians who have a better understanding of the communities they’re serving.

Education: As people of color, we must take the reins in our own hands and educate ourselves about this disease and the effect it has on our bodies. At the end of the day, healthcare professionals and the community can provide tools and resources, but the really difficult work is ultimately the responsibility of the individual. People should feel empowered to make decisions for themselves when it comes to their health and their diagnosis and we want to arm them with the necessary information to achieve that.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

A leader is someone who stays the course even when life has not given them much reason to do so. A leader has faith and conviction; these two attributes can be revolutionary aspirations. Additionally, a leader has clarity of purpose. That way, in a room with voices and ideas, a leader will focus on the ones that get us closer to the goals of our mission. Leaders know how to look at a puzzle and decipher which pieces do and don’t fit with the bigger picture. In the support and advancement for type 1 diabetes, leadership means seeing new areas of need and then addressing them.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  • I wish someone had told me that the disparities in terms of access for people of color would be so much greater than I would have ever imagined; the well is so much deeper than people think. People of color are at the lowest point of the totem pole when it comes to using these technological devices to better manage this disease and there needs to be reform made to allow for equal opportunities and access to healthcare tools and technology for all that need it.
  • I wish someone had told me that the longer you live with type 1 diabetes, the less likely you are to be aware of the latest advancements and technologies, especially as it relates to people of color. I’ve met so many people who were diagnosed in early childhood who don’t have the latest information about management tools. I’m referring to basic information on diabetes, such as the availability of different technology for diabetes management. I’ve met people who have been living with the disease for 20 years who don’t know what an insulin pump is or how to adjust basal settings on an insulin pump or with injections. It was really shocking to me because I would be looking to them for advice, but instead they were looking to me. I wish someone told me there’s still a lot of education needed in this space.
  • I wish someone had shared in the beginning that collaboration was going to be key. When I entered the world of organizations doing awareness work for diabetes, I was so inspired. It became apparent that intellectual and resource sharing was the only way to really amplify everyone’s voices. The work I’m doing with organizations such as Children with Diabetes, Diabetes Research Institute, Touched by Type 1, Beyond Type 1, and more, is so collaborative. I think that is the best way to make an impact as we continue to compensate for the lack of funding available to those living with the disease.
  • I wish someone had shared that despite some of the successes we’ve had in the community, the issues are so serious and vast that sometimes it feels like we’re not accomplishing anything. Most days it feels more like a long, winding road where I have a sense of duty and conviction to stay the course and continue working on knocking out these issues that we’re attempting to tackle.
  • I wish someone had shared that the rewards might seem small but can be so powerful. For example, rewards might just be the letters we receive from people who are moved, inspired, or touched by the work we’re doing, but those letters keep me inspired and motivated to keep doing the work we’re doing. Knowing that we’ve been able to help even just one person on their journey with diabetes is so moving.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would inspire people to approach their health by understanding that nutrition plays a huge role in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, especially for someone living with diabetes. People with diabetes face a myriad of health challenges and might not realize that many negative health outcomes are associated with a lack of attention to nutrition. For example, I think about my family in New Orleans and the lack of variety as it relates to nutritional intake. Everything is so rich and heavy, much like the vibrant culture in the city. Food is comforting but I think a better balance is needed. What we eat is so connected to how our bodies feel.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my favorite life lesson quotes is actually from my partner, Khary, who’s a writer and educator: “I want to be of service to those I love, especially to those who look like me.”

I really think this quote sums up the goal here at Kyler Cares. I want to be of service to those living with type 1 diabetes, especially those who look like me. We’re on the receiving end of these poor health outcomes, and I want to help the community with diabetes thrive.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

Can I choose two?!…

Oprah Winfrey: I’ve always been fascinated with her since I was a child. The work she’s been able to do and the impact she’s had in the lives of so many are extremely inspiring. She is a great example of what is possible when life is lived with intent.

Michelle Obama: She’s done a lot of work in the health and wellness space as it relates to nutrition and approaching nutrition as the first point of healthcare. I also loved the “Let’s Move” initiative she promoted during her time as First Lady. For people living with type 1 diabetes, having a solid nutrition plan and consistent exercise regimen is extremely important.

I hope I can impress the importance of proper nutrition on the community with type 1 diabetes and help people to understand the impact nutrition has on diabetes.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Please feel free to follow Kyler Cares on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter through the account name, @KylerCares.

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