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Volunteer Spotlight - Robert Stevenson

Volunteer Spotlight - Robert Stevenson
Robert Stevenson (middle)

“I never thought I’d get such satisfaction out of volunteering, but it’s enormously rewarding and I get the best buzz out of it”. 

Meet our Volunteer Spotlight for February 2019 - Robert Stevenson 

Robert has been volunteering for us since 2015. He started after retiring as a school teacher. “I had always thought about it, but didn’t have very much spare time before I retired. However, now that I do have more time, it’s absolutely rewarding and worthwhile. I enjoy working with the wonderful team in Northern Ireland and seeing the difference I can make in the lives of those living with diabetes – both types”.

Motivations and getting involved

“I find myself in very good general health and am now fortunate enough to be – thus far - complication free. Both eyes are rated 6:6 or next thing to it, despite extensive laser treatment to address retinopathy problems. I would not be here today without all the aspects of diabetes care I receive, so I am glad to have the opportunity to give something back.”

Robert was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes 37 years ago. “Effectively, I managed to diagnose myself. When I was 26, I noticed I had developed a swelling on the coccyx bone at the bottom of my spine. Upon further reading, I came to the conclusion that it must be a boil. Further investigations suggested that a boil which appears in those who are not normally prone to them can herald diabetes.  Looking under the subject of diabetes mellitus, I noticed that I had all the symptoms. At first the doctor brushed it off, saying that thirst, frequent urination etc were occurring because I was paranoid; when I said I was also losing weight, as a 26-year-old, otherwise healthy man, he offered me a urine test and was profusely apologetic when it registered positive”. 

Robert’s diagnosis has driven him to raise awareness about the potential seriousness of diabetes. His role as a speaker volunteer involves visiting schools, social groups and workplaces to talk to the students. “I usually get a fantastic response from children. They love to hear all about the history and technology, but it also strikes a chord with the children who have diabetes – or indeed whose grandparents have type 2. Nobody knows whether he/she is going to be affected in the future. While emphasising the need for careful self-management, I stand in front of them healthy, happy and living my life.” This sends out a message that if we look after ourselves it will reap rewards. 

“No two speaker engagements are ever the same. Not coming from a medical background, I speak purely from my own experiences. I look people in the eye and speak with conviction. It makes people listen and pay more attention – sometimes more than when their GP or hospital doctor speaks. It’s important to keep turning it back to the positives. I encourage people to get out and live their lives with diabetes. It is very much a manageable condition.”

Know Your Risk and more 

“I prefer the hands-on, people-centred approach, as it’s relevant to my skills and experience. The delivery of PowerPoint presentations were part of my bread-and-butter as a teacher of English for nearly 4 decades. That’s why I feel at home when delivering diabetes awareness presentations to all ages and types.” Robert soon trained as a Know Your Risk volunteer, helping people to understand their risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and the steps they can take to prevent this happening. “It taught me to be more sympathetic about how I broach conversations with people about weight, diet or exercise. We have to tailor our response according to each individual’s needs. It encourages them to open up a dialogue with their own GPs, as we offer standard referral letters for those at moderate or high risk. I love meeting people at all these events.”

Robert always jumps at the chance to talk about diabetes and help people learn from his own experience. “I’m invited annually to seminars for third year Pharmacy students at Queen’s University, Belfast. I talk about things relevant to my diabetes (and of course relevant to their studies) like diagnosis, medication, potential complications and technology. Great interest is generated by my cutting-edge Libre Freestyle system, which is a monitor attached to my arm accompanied by a sensor to read it at any time of day or night. Instead of testing blood by finger-pricking, it tests inter-stitial fluid under the skin. Theresa May, the PM, has availed herself of the same system. It is now available on prescription to all Type 1s provided they have had Structured Diabetes Education. These seminars with the student pharmacists begin a good dialogue and help them to understand things from the perspective of a person living with diabetes.”

But it doesn’t stop there. Robert also sits on several panels as a patient representative. “I learned a lot from attending a DAFNE course. So I now sit on a panel to talk about Structured Diabetes Education, and on another Research Committee to talk about my experiences of using insulin and technology. I’ve had my own complications in the past, so it helps to share my experiences and provide feedback to healthcare professionals on the committee”.

What’s next?  

Robert has no intention of slowing down anytime soon. “I’d like to do more to provide some direct support to people with diabetes. There is no substitute for peer support and we can learn so much from one another. I also want to encourage employers to look after their workforce, headteachers to educate more children and increase media awareness of diabetes types 1 and 2. I’d gladly give time to go and talk about it.

“In a nutshell, it means such a lot to me. It’s a way of feeling useful and fulfilled and of making a difference. If I can impact the lives of others for good, arm them with bits of knowledge and understanding which may help them to make changes in diet or exercise, then I’ll do this for as long as I can. “There are many types of volunteering available, so if you have the time and inclination, don’t hesitate. If you like to put a smile on people’s faces, have a laugh and work with those who share similar interests and experiences, then get involved”.

If you’ve been inspired by Robert’s story and would like to get involved, get in touch.


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