In her third year of medical school, Dr. Amber Champion already had chosen her future specialty — obstetrics and gynecology. But then a series of unfortunate events led to a change of plan.
Within a matter of days in 2004, her car broke down, prompting her to switch to a bicycle. Her bike broke down, prompting her to take it to a repair shop. Before she could retrieve the bike, the shop burned down. And then she ended up in the emergency room of an Australian hospital with symptoms including blurry vision, weight loss, and excessive hunger and thirst.
At 27, she was shocked to learn that she had developed Type 1 diabetes.
Finding her crash course in the disease fascinating, Champion ditched her ob/gyn plans and opted instead for a career as an endocrinologist.
First, she finished medical school at Flinders University of South Australia in Adelaide and then a fellowship in endocrinology at the University of Arizona. The native of Washington state practiced medicine in both Maryland and Nebraska before moving to Las Vegas earlier this year.
As a professor with the UNLV School of Medicine, Champion as an endocrinologist specializes in all things relating to hormones, but takes a special interest in diabetes.
There are two main types of diabetes: Type 1, an autoimmune disease, and Type 2, a metabolic disorder. Both are chronic diseases that affect the way the body regulates blood sugar or glucose.
Glucose is the fuel that feeds the body’s cells, but to enter cells it needs a key. Insulin is that key.
People with Type I diabetes don’t produce insulin. Those with Type 2 diabetes don’t respond to insulin as well as they should and later in the disease often don’t make enough insulin. Both types can lead to chronically high blood sugar levels, increasing the risk of diabetes complications, which can include cardiovascular disease, nerve damage, and kidney damage.
More than 30 million Americans have diabetes, she said, noting that the vast majority have Type 2.
“Type 1 diabetes, which I have, can appear at any age, but it’s most commonly first seen among children,” said Champion, who uses an insulin pump daily to keep her blood sugar levels in a safe range.
No cure exists for diabetes, but it is treatable.
“Education plays a huge role in diabetes self-management and we can all live healthier and longer if we’re given the right tools to manage it,” Champion said. “I try to provide that today. I now tell patients that I won’t manage their diabetes — they manage their own diabetes. I’m just here to give them the tools to self-manage, suggest different medications, or be their cheerleader — whatever is needed.”
She points out that many people whose jobs include a great deal of stress, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler manage their diabetes well.
“I think I can speak for most doctors (when I say) that we are elated when a patient has understood the role their diet and lifestyle play and makes changes for the better.”