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Being a role model is better than baseball, Jason Johnson claims

Jason Johnson autographed baseballs and took photos for everyone who attended his talk about living with diabetes

Sun Advocate reporter

Jason Johnson was like any other child growing up. He wanted to be a professional athlete playing the sport he loved the most, baseball. But everything in his life changed when at the age of 11 he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.

Johnson, 37, stands 6'6" and at first glance, he may not look like the average person affected by diabetes. Learning about his condition at a young age gave him a better appreciation of how much diabetes can effect a person's life.

With a desire to help others affected by diabetes, Johnson and his wife Ember Blueggel Johnson spent some time at Castleview Hospital on Tuesday talking with people about Johnson's life and learning about how it is possible to live a successful life with diabetes.

It was a learning process for Johnson having to deal with Type 1 diabetes, checking his blood sugars multiple times a day and learning to manage his life. One day he ran into a tree with his car because of an incident with low blood sugar.

He was worried that a future in baseball would never be a possibility. But Johnson's parents told him he could do anything he wanted to do in life.

"I was scared and worried at first that I couldn't play baseball," said Johnson. "But I've always looked at it like I would never let the diabetes beat me."

Playing baseball was a good thing for Johnson, as playing helped counter the diabetes with the regular exercise and conditioning. It has helped him with pitching in the major leagues for over 10 seasons spending time with Pittsburgh Pirates, Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers, Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Los Angeles Dodgers and even in Japan with the Seibu Lions.

During an early part of his career, Johnson was once sent home by a team in the minor leagues for having problems with low blood sugar.

"It was a wake-up call for me," said Johnson.

Throughout his career, Johnson alerted everyone about his condition. With the long and grueling nature of a baseball season, Johnson didn't want diabetes to be something that separated him from other players. When he told teammates and coaches about it, they were accepting of his condition and wanted to learn about what to look for if something were to go wrong.

"I didn't want to hide it from anyone," said Johnson. "Not a single player had anything bad to say about it."

In 2004, Johnson became the first Major League Baseball player to wear an insulin pump while out on the field. The pump is about the size of a pager and puts insulin into the body through a catheter placed under the skin.

Five years later in 2009, Johnson was diagnosed with choroidal melanoma in his right retina, a type of eye cancer that can be life-threatening. He underwent surgery where doctors inserted a radioactive plaque next to the tumor and was ordered to do nothing for four days but lay in a hotel bed.

Now whenever he gets the chance, he enjoys talking to others about living with Type 1 diabetes. He encourages people with diabetes to have a long life, going from one year to the next while following their desires and developing confidence along the way.

"Having a positive attitude about it, overcoming the condition and becoming a better person in the end for it," Johnson said, which are some of the keys he says are to living with diabetes.

Pam Konakis, a diabetes educator at Castleview Hospital, said that Johnson's talk focused on how to lead healthy lives with the diabetes and learning to have dreams and stick to goals in life.

"All of the kids and people who showed up today were very into the presentation," said Konakis.

Jennifer Densley attended the presentation and brought her son, 13-year-old David, with her. David was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and has his own insulin pump which he has been using over the past year. Like Johnson, David makes sure he checks his blood sugar regularly throughout the day.

"His (Johnson's) story relates a lot to David," said Densley. "It's amazing to hear about his story and seeing him succeed in life with diabetes."

While it was interesting to hear about Johnson's story, some were more excited to meet a professional athlete. Elvis Brown, who has been living with Type 2 diabetes for the past 20 years, is a big baseball fan and getting the chance to meet a professional athlete was a moment he won't soon forget.

"It was so cool to meet him," said Brown. "Hearing about his story really helps out a lot."

As a big fan of baseball, especially the New York Yankees, Brown was ecstatic when he got an autographed baseball and a photo with Johnson.

"It's really cool to see someone who cares as much about diabetes like Jason does," said Brown.

Johnson said playing with diabetes was like overcoming an obstacle in life. On and off the field, Johnson has used the diabetes as a platform to help inform and inspire people to work hard and live fulfilling lives despite the seriousness of the condition. He is hoping that people he talks to, both young and old, make sure to take care of themselves and regularly check their blood sugars.

As for his baseball career, Johnson underwent shoulder surgery last year and is looking to try and catch on with a major league team by getting an invitation to spring training.

His place in life as a professional baseball may be important, but being a role model for those with diabetes may be even greater than that.

"Being considered a role model is a great honor. It gives me a better feeling than being a baseball player," he said.

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