Monday 10 July 2017

Standing on the Inside: my day in the Land of Libs

I have often over these past 3 years reflected on the interesting turn that my life has taken thanks to diabetes. Never more so than last Friday, when I found myself Standing on the Inside of the factory where the FreeStyle Libre is made. Yes, I was in the #LandOfLibs and Neil Sedaka's jaunty tune from 1973 came into my head.

Until around 2014, my adult life had unfolded along a line which was really rather predictable. I had enjoyed school as a pupil; my mother was a teacher; and I was good at languages. I had an inspirational and personable French teacher for a couple of years leading up to O-Level, and he seemed to me to thoroughly enjoy what he did for a living and imparted that sense of fun to others. So I never really considered doing anything other than being a teacher. I went to university to read languages then trained to be a teacher.

Moreover, given that I am not very adventurous, it was always likely that I would end up living not far from where I was born and brought up, and so it was hardly surprising that I took a job teaching languages in a Lancashire school in 1981, made a reasonable success of it, and worked an entire career there. I married quite young, with my wife also pursuing a career in teaching, and along the way we raised a family of three children, all now adults.

So far, so predictable. We’ve had our share of life’s ups and downs, as any family does, but far more of the former than the latter. For me, the biggest down was developing Type One diabetes in 1997, exactly halfway through that teaching career, but to be honest it had little impact on my life and work, being just a nuisance rather than a burden.

It is therefore remarkable that I now devote so much of my time, thoughts and energy to diabetes and my fellow diabetics, and I have spent much time reflecting on this, not least this past Friday, when I found myself as a VIP guest at the Abbott Diabetes Care factory in Witney, Oxfordshire, sharing a public conversation with a Sky TV presenter about my life with diabetes in front of an audience of people who work at that factory. Yes, I really was in the #LandOfLibs. How did this happen? 

Well, it started with a tweet – like a few interesting opportunities in my life of late. It was June 2015 and I received this message from a then unknown follower on Twitter:-

That message, from an Abbott tweep led to my being the subject of a filmed mini-feature about my life and work and how the FreeStyle Libre had helped me to flourish. If you haven’t seen it, it’s here:

Both before and since the making of that film, I have continued to extol the virtues of the Libre, entirely out of conviction and with no inducement or encouragement from its makers. I say it because I believe it, and I know that many others feel likewise, and many, many more would love to do so if they could afford it. I said it all in this blog post (link below) within a few days of getting it and have never changed that view:-

As well as that film, Abbott have already involved me and other fellow diabetics in a number of other activities, most memorably and enjoyably at two bloggers’ conferences in different European capitals. Having twice boarded aircraft at the crack of dawn, bound for cool European cities in the company of friends who were until recently complete strangers, I have already had cause to be very grateful to Abbott for  giving me some new opportunities as I approach retirement from my working life. My sincere enthusiasm for an innovative piece of medical kit has certainly taken me to some interesting places and made me some wonderful new friends.

So imagine my delight when I was asked a few weeks ago if I would like to give a presentation to the workforce at the factory where FreeStyle Libre was invented, developed and is produced. I leapt at the chance, unsure of what was required of me, and discovered that I was to share duties with Stephen Dixon, presenter of Sunrise, the breakfast news on Sky TV. Stephen is a high-profile Type One whom I had already met when we were both speaking at the TADtalk conference in April, and we were asked to conduct an on-stage conversation about life with Type One and the benefits of the FreeStyle Libre in allowing us to live our busy lives.

So I found myself in the Land of Libs on a glorious summer’s day, and a surprisingly powerful experience it proved to be. I remain rather humbled, even baffled, but extremely grateful for the recognition and respect that I am afforded by Abbott, and I felt rather unworthy as I was welcomed as a VIP visitor and taken on a factory tour. 

#LibsOnTour at the #LandOfLibs

Abbott's Witney factory is most impressive: a modern, squeaky-clean place where test and ketone strips for ordinary meters and sensors for the FreeStyle Libre are made. Sadly, but understandably, the Libre sensors are produced in strict secrecy, due to the potential value of such a unique and innovative product to rival companies. Frosted glass screens the production lines, with workers in the sterile rooms dressed like forensic scientists at a crime scene. The regulatory demands of producing a medical device which penetrates the skin are reassuringly strict.

I got a better look at the process which produces blood and ketone test strips in their millions, and it gives a powerful reminder of the awesome technology from which we benefit. 

Equally striking is the positive corporate culture which pervades every aspect of the factory's life and work. The sense of teamwork and inclusiveness is palpable, and the highly skilled workforce clearly enjoy their work and take great pride in it. The corridors feature displays which celebrate the company's mission and ethos in a manner reminiscent of a good school, indeed the uniformed workforce clearly have the same sense of belonging as that found in any good school.

My staged conversation with Stephen Dixon, at which we “compared notes” on our lives with diabetes, was listened to with a respectful attentiveness which confirmed that employees really appreciated the chance to hear at first hand how their work impacts upon the lives of those whom Abbott's products help. I genuinely felt that I was part of something big and thoroughly worthwhile.

I hope that this does not come across as obsequious or creepy. There are those, including some in the world of diabetes, who are cynical and suspicious of the role of the healthcare industry in caring for peoples' health. Some suggest that profit is their driving motive, but I beg to differ. Businesses, all businesses, produce goods and services from which we all benefit. They make profits if they do it well, and invest those profits to improve and extend what they do, as well as rewarding those who help make them successful. Capitalism, like any system, has its faults and can be abused (the current scandal of insulin price in the USA springs to mind) but by and large it works to the benefit of society at large as well as any other system we have tried.

Abbott Diabetes Care appears to me to do a very good job in developing and producing ways of improving our lives with this demanding condition. The FreeStyle Libre is a technologically advanced game-changer for those lucky enough to be able to afford it. There is good reason to believe that it will in time be available on prescription and I know that there are people working tirelessly to achieve that goal. Abbott are all about technology and scientific expertise, but more than that they are about people. I have had the pleasure of meeting many people from several countries who work for the company in a variety of roles. They all speak warmly of Abbott and the people who work for it, and I am proud to count a number of them as friends. Abbott and its people mean a lot to me. 

New friends from Abbott

My day in the Land of Libs confirmed what I already thought, and I am grateful for the opportunity to be Standing on the Inside and getting to know more about where the FreeStyle Libre comes from. 

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