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Former Miss America's Legacy: Boosting Diabetes Awareness

Nicole Johnson urges others to take control of their disease

FRIDAY, Nov. 14, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- In the midst of the 1997 Miss Virginia Pageant, contestant Nicole Johnson lay in her hotel room, slipping into a coma.

"My glucose levels dropped so low I was comatose," she recalled recently. "My traveling companion woke up and found me and called the paramedics."

The paramedics revived Johnson, who'd been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1993, at age 19. They were able to restore her insulin balance without having to take her to a hospital. But by the next morning, word had spread among the other contestants and pageant officials.

"People were looking at me with fear," she says. And the pageant organizers gently suggested that she could go home, no questions asked.

But Johnson had other plans. She stayed and went on to become one of the 10 finalists. Then she returned the next year and captured the Miss Virginia 1998 crown. Eventually, she realized her ultimate goal, winning the 1999 Miss America title.

With that victory came another bold decision -- she made diabetes awareness her "platform" issue.

About 18.2 million Americans have diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association, and about a third of them aren't aware they have the sometimes-fatal disease. Most people have type 2 diabetes, where their bodies don't make enough insulin or cells don't process it effectively. But others, like Johnson, have type 1, in which the body doesn't produce any insulin.

Despite the prevalence of the disease, some pageant officials weren't thrilled with her platform issue choice. "Even after I won, many of the officials in the Miss America program wanted me to change my platform. They were looking for something that would capture more of the popular interest."

But she persisted. "If that's what you want to do," she told them, "maybe you should call the first runner-up."

So began Johnson's very untraditional reign as Miss America. For starters, she says, she rarely wore the crown. "I wanted to pass it around when I saw kids [during talks at schools and civic organizations] and use it for character building," she explains.

When she talked to children, she took along her message of diabetes awareness, her crown and a "character-building" exercise. "If they were going to put on the crown, they had to look in the mirror and say, 'I will overcome diabetes -- or some other physical challenge.'"

The kids were enthralled. She remembers many of the children she met that year, but one little boy with diabetes, about 8, stands out. He tried on the crown, looked in the mirror and said, "I want to write a movie about kids with diabetes," Johnson recalls. She encouraged him and thanked him for sharing his dream.

"About 10 minutes later, I noticed a father standing in the corner of the hotel ballroom. He made his way up to me, crying. He said, 'Today, for the first time, my son came to me and said he could do something, rather than he couldn't because he had a disease.'"

Throughout her reign and continuing today, Johnson urges adults and children with diabetes to question their doctors about treatment options, to be sure they're getting the best care. She also reminds them to do all they can, with diet and exercise, to protect themselves.

She's also written a book about living with diabetes, and co-authored two cookbooks for those with the disease.

Johnson has also boosted awareness of the insulin pump, a beeper-sized device that she and many others with diabetes rely on. It delivers insulin through a tube attached to the body.

Right before her year as Miss America ended, Johnson took her place at the lead of the traditional boardwalk parade in Atlantic City, N.J. "Along the parade route, I noticed people holding up their insulin pumps," she recalls. "I pulled out my pump and showed it off, too."

More information

For information on healthy living with diabetes, see the American Diabetes Association. To visit Nicole Johnson's Web site, click here.

SOURCE: Nicole Johnson, 1999 Miss America
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