National Press Club

Mary Tyler Moore Raises the Curtain on Diabetes

June 1, 2009 | By Richard Lee

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Mary Tyler Moore, who turned the world on with her smile in the popular 1970’s sitcom about a ratings-challenged Minneapolis TV newstation, addressed a Thursday Press Club Luncheon about a more serious, and personal, matter: her decades-long fight with diabetes.

Moore, who chronicled her battle in a just-published book, “Growing Up Again: Life, Loves, and Oh Yeah, Diabetes,” is also international chairwoman for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. She has become, she says, “an icon, to help them build awareness about the threat to life that diabetes represents.” She will give Senate testimony in June for JDRF’s Children’s Congress for 150 child delegates with Type I diabetes, a grassroots gathering that supports research for a cure for the disease.

“I have a lot of fond memories of my work as a Midwest TV news producer,” she told her audience, many of them long-time fans. “And those Mary Richards days at WJM, I am told, inspired many a young woman to go into journalism. So I do feel a special kinship with you.”

A tall, trim woman in her early 70s wearing a chic dark beige suit, Moore was informed, serious, and very matter-of-fact in talking about the disease she lives with every day: “Type I diabetes is not caused by personal behavior,” she said. “Type I diabetes is caused by one’s own immune system destroying the insulin producing beta cells of the pancreas. And this results in metabolic derangements which have acutely life-threatening, as well as long-term life-limiting consequences. If Type I is not diagnosed quickly enough or left untreated, you die. And even though insulin replacement injections can keep us alive, it is a difficult life, and it is very hard to get it right."

Moore was diagnosed 40 years ago with the disease, “shortly after a miscarriage that I had. A blood test revealed that my blood sugar level was 750. Normal is between 70 and 110. And they did not know how I was still alive and walking around. But within 48 hours, I was brought back to normal, and then began the hard part, living with the disease.”

She initially kept the diagnosis a secret.

“It wasn’t that I thought it was a stigma,” she replied in answer to a question. “It was that I was afraid that as an actress, when people watched me, whether it was doing my series or doing a part in a movie, that people would say, ‘You know, she’s a diabetic.’ And the other person would say, ‘What’s that?’ ‘Well, I don’t know. But she has it.’ ‘Well, it doesn’t look like it’s too serious. I mean, look at her. There she is. She’s up there, prancing around,’ or ‘Oh my God, that poor woman,’ you know? So I just thought all of that would get in the way of my work. And eventually I just let go of it and said, do what you know is the right thing to do. And I did. And I’m glad.”

The disease, she said, “affects as many as 24 million children and adults in the United States, and accounts for approximately $175 billion per year in health costs.” It can cause blindness, kidney failure, heart disease, amputation and strokes. It has no cure.

In 1984, when JDRF asked her to become involved, she was, at first, reluctant.

“At the time, I hadn’t taken ownership of my diabetes,” she said. “I wasn’t sure I wanted the world to know that behind the smile that could turn it on was an independent woman who was dependent on multiple shots of insulin a day, just to stay alive. So it took a bit of soul-searching. I did eventually get over my hesitancy. And looking back, I am so grateful that I was asked to serve. Because in taking the risk of sharing some of my private self, I’ve grown quite a bit. And my association with JDRF has helped them grow to be the largest non-profit funder of diabetes research in the world.” JDRF, she said, “has contributed over $1.3 billion to research since its founding, and over $150 million last year alone.”

Moore’s husband, Dr. S. Robert Levine, chairman of JDRF”s clinical affairs working group, was also on hand to answer some of the more technical questions about the disease and its treatment, and ongoing research efforts, which have focused on clinical trials, and more recently, stem cell research. Aiding in that effort, too, were Moore’s JDRF colleagues and executive officers, Richard Insel and Larry Soler. Soler is working on the development of an artificial pancreas, which, he says, could make “a huge difference” in how the disease is treated.

Inevitably, some questioners wanted to know more about “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” What was her favorite episode? Not, surprisingly, the one about the funeral of Chuckles the Clown. It was the one, she said, when Mary Richards danced around in her old toe shoes, reliving her childhood dream about being a ballet dancer. “It had such real connections to my childhood, my upbringing, and what I thought I wanted to do with my life.”

As for Mary and her friend Rhoda being ground-breaking role models for women, “I never thought at the time that we were doing the show that was anything like a role model,” she said. “If anything, at that point, role model had kind of a downcast aura to it. But I knew that I was just playing myself. If I’d had a writer in my personal life, I would have been doing all those scenes you saw me do on ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show.’

“When we were casting for the part of Lou Grant, Ed Asner came in, and he was just awful.” Moore revealed. “He read the scene. He read the scene twice, as a matter of fact, and he was still pretty awful. We thanked him. And as he was walking out the door, he said, ‘Let me come back and do that again.’ And magic happened. He got all the nuances of the comedy. He looked straight into my eyes and meant everything he was saying. You know, it was just a blessing from heaven that we got Ed Asner, because he was as much the strength of that show as anybody on it.”