Life is a balance. Between work and school. Between friends and family. Between the gym and homework. Multi-tasking to make sure we can fit all the ‘wanna dos’ in with the ‘must dos.’ But, for people with Type 1 diabetes, failure to keep things in balance can be life threatening — in a moment or years in the future
Andrew Vilcinskas is one of those people. He’s a fourth year Doctor of Pharmacy student and he was first diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was in the fifth grade. He’s been balancing ever since.
To be clear, Vilcinskas is not defined by his disease. He’s definitely asked more about his height — 6’6” – than he is about the unobtrusive insulin pump he wears on his belt. He’s a talented amateur photographer who finds something special in subtle imagery. And, the fact that he can calculate the number of carbs in one of his favorite foods – pizza – faster than most people can send a text on their smart phones is not something he feels the need to brag about.
Still, it’s a fact that dealing with a disease that requires constant adjustments of the life-saving hormone, insulin, in order to maintain health is something that most of us will never have to think about. Vilcinskas has it down to a science. Literally.
To start at the beginning, he was just a normal kid growing up in Connecticut when he was first diagnosed. The fact that his mom is a nurse may have helped him handle the situation, but he really didn’t feel limited by his disease until he began to think about the career path he’d take after graduating from RHAM High School in Hebron.
“My first thought was that I’d like to serve my country by joining the military, but when I went to a career fair and talked to recruiters from the various services I found out that none of them would accept someone with Type 1 diabetes,” he says. “I wasn’t expecting that response and it was really hard for me to take no for an answer. Throughout pharmacy school I have struggled with the response from the military and the US Public Health Service and have continued exploring ways to serve.”
“But, he continues “my mother suggested that since I was good in the sciences and liked working with people, that maybe I should consider pharmacy as a career, and that’s how I ended up here at UConn.”
That suggestion turned out to be a good one, and Vilcinskas has excelled, not only in the classroom, but also in other roles where his leadership ability has served him well.
Andrea Hubbard, Associate Professor of Pharmacology & Toxicology and Leaders Track Coordinator says, “I honestly can’t say enough good things about Andrew – he is an exceptional young man who is not only a self-advocate, but also an advocate for others with Type I diabetes.”
She adds, “Besides being in Leaders Track, he served as a mentor in a First Year Experience (FYE) class for pre-pharmacy students, and also as president of the UConn chapter of American Pharmacists Association-Academy of Student Pharmacists. His role in APhA included leading one of their patient care projects, Operation Diabetes, on a local level, and advocating for provider status for pharmacists on a national level. Andrew is also active as a member and past president of the UCONN College Diabetes Network created to be a community on campus for students living with diabetes.”
When asked how he manages to keep his glucose levels in balance, faced with the vicissitudes of changing schedules, long hours with unpredictable breaks on some rotations, and the normal interruptions associated with student life, Vilcinskas answers with the characteristic introspection that defines his personality.
He smiles and says, “It’s harder than people realize but not as hard as they might imagine. On a day-to-day basis, people only notice when things do not go well. When I look at my glucose monitor and my blood sugar is perfect, I’m the only one who knows how much effort goes into eating the right foods at the right times with right insulin dosing and strategy. From knowing whether it’s safe to eat a muffin just before class starts when I know I’m going to have to give myself an injection [of insulin] in 15 minutes. Or, whether I’ve correctly calculated how long it’s going to take for the carbs in the pizza I had for lunch to be absorbed into my bloodstream. It’s just something I’ve learned to do.”
This summer, on an individualized association management rotation in Chicago, Vilcinskas worked with the American Association of Diabetes Educators and the National Certification Board of Diabetes Educators.
“It was a really meaningful rotation,” he says, “and if I had to describe it in a few words I think I’d say I was an executive and advocacy intern. I attended the annual meeting of the AADE in Houston, and there I met a pharmacist who provides diabetes care for the Cleveland Clinic and I was able to take my personal time and shadow her for a few days at the Clinic. I also worked on several research projects and attended executive meetings. It was a great learning experience.”
As for his future, Vilcinskas hasn’t really made up his mind. One of his rotations was at the Travelers Insurance Company where he loved the environment while learning about workers compensation. His summer in Chicago opened his eyes to the role a pharmacist can play in association management. Then there’s his experience at UConn Health where he’s learning about health system pharmacy and starting his general medicine rotation.
To come, there will be ambulatory care and cardiology and community pharmacy. He’s also working on an honor’s thesis titled Assessment of Insulin-Blood Glucose Management in College Students with Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus with his thesis Mentor, Marissa Salvo, Pharm.D., BCACP, Associate Clinical Professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice who is pretty sure the sky’s the limit for him.
She says, “Andrew is a remarkable student pharmacist who takes advantage of every opportunity with enthusiasm. [During the time I have known him] he has grown professionally in so many ways and I have been lucky to be part of his educational journey. I look forward to seeing where the road takes him!