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Artificial Pancreas Technology Offers Salinas Teacher Hope

Erika Mahoney
Rebecca Bishop, who teaches in Salinas, shows off her new so-called artificial pancreas. She's lived with type 1 diabetes since she was 9.

A Salinas teacher is one of the first people in the country to receive a so-called artificial pancreas to help manage her type 1 diabetes. The FDA approved the device last year and it will hit the market in a few weeks. The device is easing the burden of diabetes, but at a cost.

Rebecca Bishop sits in front of a whiteboard, teaching her fourth and fifth grade students about reading comprehension.

She works at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Salinas. Her students leaf through their workbooks, looking up at Bishop when they have an answer. As Bishop teaches, she’s also managing her type 1 diabetes. You can’t see it, but she’s wearing the so-called “artificial pancreas” under her top. It’s an automated insulin delivery system.

“This just makes it so much easier and there are fewer worries with this,” Bishop says.

After her class breaks for lunch, she pulls what looks like an iPhone off her belt and sets it on a classroom table. It’s the insulin pump.

“So I can show you, this is the main button,” Bishop says. Her blood sugar is displayed right on the screen. A clear tube comes out of the top, “which leads right into my stomach area where I just stick it in,” says Bishop. That’s where the insulin is deposited, like an IV. Also on her stomach is a little white circle. That’s the sensor that continuously monitors her blood sugar. The two parts talk to each other, calculating her blood sugar and then determining how much insulin she needs.

“And then it just gives me the insulin automatically,” says Bishop.

Before this, Bishop only got insulin when she gave herself an injection. At one point in her life, she was up to 6 injections a day. But after living with diabetes for 45 years, she worried about giving up that control to technology.

“It actually has not been scary for me at all. I have loved being able to go for hours without worrying about it,” says Bishop.

Bishop is one of about 700 people in the United States testing out the so-called artificial pancreas. The company that made it, Medtronic, did an early release to about 60 clinics, including the clinic Bishop goes to - Salinas Valley Medical Clinic Diabetes and Endocrine Center.

“I think it sounds pretty cool to say we are one of 60 in the world,” says Dana Armstrong.

Dana Armstrong is the Director of Diabetes Services. She says the clinic has seven patients participating in the early roll out, and like Bishop, they’re amazed at how much the technology has simplified their lives.

“Diabetes is in every aspect of their lives, they’re kind of always thinking about it. And so I think as you talk to them… could this truly be happening, you know does Santa Claus really exist, is this real… it’s hard for them,” says Armstrong.

Armstrong says at least 40 patients at the clinic are waiting to get the system when it officially hits the market in June.

The device will cost between $6,000 and $9,000, the end price depending on the user’s insurance. Some people have been outspoken about that price tag, like Dana Lewis. She lives in Seattle and has had type 1 diabetes for over 14 years.

“For us as a community, as we talk about this technology, we need to recognize, it is not the holy grail, it is not one size fits all for everyone and everything at least if nothing else because not everybody who wants it can access it,” Lewis says.

Lewis essentially built her own artificial pancreas by programming a tiny computer to respond to her insulin needs. She believes it's only a matter of time before more devices come out on the market and drive down the cost.

Back in the classroom, Rebecca Bishop says there is room for improvement with Medtronic’s new device. She still has to tell it how many carbohydrates she’s eating and when she’s exercising to receive the right amount of insulin. But she says it’s so much better than when she a kid.

“I had to have a little chemistry set at school. I’d have to leave for lunch early every day and check my sugar,” Bishop says.

And now when she’s at school, she leaves that up to technology.