Dana Dempsey was 25 and studying to be a physician assistant at Wake Forest University when she and her classmates were in the diabetes unit testing each other’s blood sugars.

Her lab partner’s levels tested normal. Dempsey’s didn’t.

Her blood sugar levels were close to 700 mg/dL, while the normal fasting level is under 100.

The former college basketball player, pre-med nutrition major and personal trainer had just gone for a 5-mile run and eaten a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. Sure, she had felt a little off lately, but she assumed that was school stress.


“I was literally diagnosed the next day with Type 1 diabetes,” she said, meaning her body does not produce insulin, which breaks down sugars and starches into glucose for the body to use for energy.

That was 2010. And until last year, almost no one but Dempsey’s immediate family and fiancé, Colin Cumberworth, knew about her condition.

“I don’t like to accept weaknesses, I guess,” Dempsey, now 32, said. “I want to be able to do my best in things and show my strength in things.”

Type 1 is limiting. She eats small meals throughout the day and she pricks her fingers five to 10 times a day to check her blood sugar levels, injecting herself with insulin three to six times a day. She takes insulin right when she wakes up and tests her levels right before bed. She tries to eat well, get seven hours of sleep, hydrate, take supplements and stay fit to manage her disease.

“I can’t do anything without thinking about how it’s going to affect my blood sugars,” she said. “I can’t go anywhere without thinking, do I have a piece of candy or a snack I can have in case I drop low?”

She has also started wearing a road ID that says “diabetic,” plus a continuous glucose monitor that pairs with an app on her phone called Dexcom to monitor her blood sugar.

But diabetes didn’t stop her from competing in an Ironman in 2014 and 2015.

It doesn’t stop her from working out every day and working for OrthoCarolina as a hand and wrist specialist, and physician assistant. Or from making time for her engagement shoot.

do you think she’s excited about getting married!? #engaged #shesaidyes💍

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Now she’s talking about it all and making her challenge with diabetes public.

With the encouragement of others, she got connected with the JDRF diabetes foundation and its 100-mile bike rides that raise funds to support research, therapies and a possible cure for Type 1 diabetes.

Last year, she rode 100 miles in Wisconsin to raise more than $8,000 for JDRF. She posts about diabetes on her social media channels and she has been on an OrthoCarolina poster for a 10K run.

She’ll head off to Loveland, Colo. in August for a 103-mile ride with her fiancé and a goal to raise $10,000. She and Cumberworth are also hosting a fundraising event at Topgolf to support their bike ride.

Then Dempsey gets to marry the love of her life in September.

“I realized everything happens in life for a reason,” Dempsey said. “When it comes to being diagnosed at 25 and having a good career and a big voice with Ironman and sports and nutrition, and just having a very diverse background, I can help people. I can bring knowledge and power to these people who think they can’t do anything.”

She’d rather stay positive.

“You can’t just dwell on negativity,” Dempsey said. “I think people who dwell on negativity live in negativity and they don’t live fully. … Be motivational and positive. Be an inspiration to somebody.”

Photos: Courtesy of Dana Dempsey

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  1. Dana is my “Buckeye buddy”, we are both from Ohio! She is almost the same age as my two daughters, and is athletic and active, like them, and she is an orthopedic PA like my older daughter, who works in Durham, NC, so I kind of felt like Dana’s “work mom,” when she worked with me! When Dana was a PA student, I believe she was working in my office, doing her GI rotation, when she learned she had diabetes. I am a nurse in a large medical clinic, Digestive Health Specialists, PA, in Winston-Salem, NC. Dana was an AWESOME PA student! We would have loved to have kept her to work with us, but she wanted to move to Charlotte, NC, to be close to family, and went to work at Ortho Carolina.
    Dana was extremely active, exercised regularly, and one of the things I remember, is that she ate a small apple, core and all, every day, at lunch! She never let her new diagnosis of Diabetes 1, get her down, or hold her back. Dana is a “go-getter” for sure! I am
    very proud of her, and happy for her, and wish her all the best! Go get ’em Dana!!!