Photo: Alex McKnight
Nicole Johnson is a 'Florida Icon'
Former Miss America, health care educator, St. Petersburg; age 42
The level of guilt that I feel — as a mother with a disease — is profound. My daughter watches me struggle with diabetes. She experiences the highs and lows of the disease, and it forces her to be much more mature than she should be at 10. That is the mourning that I often feel in my heart. But, at the same time, watching mommy with a disease has given her such a beautiful respect and sensitivity to people who are hurting.
Standing on a stage in a swimsuit is very not normal. But what I learned after the fact when I was a judge at Miss America that I wish I had known back when I was a contestant is that the judging of the woman who is standing before you in a swimsuit has nothing to do with the swimsuit. It has everything to do with how she can command the audience when stripped away of everything that’s convenient to her.
I met one of the local TV news reporters in a McDonalds and I think I was about 10. It was Gayle Sierens. I went up to her and said, ‘Oh, you are on the news!’ She was just so sweet and kind to me. I left that encounter thinking to myself, ‘That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to be a TV news reporter.’
On my last day as Miss America, I rode in a parade that’s legendary in Atlantic City, the shoe parade. People all along the parade route waved at me and held up insulin pumps and they had signs saying, ‘I’m like you.’ That’s the most beautiful picture I keep in my mind.
Our lack of progressiveness in some of our statewide policies is hurting people with diabetes and other diseases. I’m not making a judgment about anybody, but I would hope in the future that we’ll make decisions that would benefit more of the citizens of Florida, especially those living with chronic illnesses. Our decision to not expand Medicaid has really hurt a lot of people.
At Bringing Science Home, (a medical research group Johnson heads), we’ve taken a social ecological view of life with diabetes. What I mean by that is at the core is the person with the disease, but there are these concentric circles that go around the person: Immediate family, close friends, business associates. We started working on that second-tier circle, looking at parents and the stress they experience around caring for their young person with diabetes and how that fractures families. And we’re also looking at romantic relationships — spouses, partners of the individual with disease — and how they feel often isolated and alone.
When it came down to it, my goal was to get on the Miss America stage and be in the top five because the top five women would be interviewed and got to hold the microphone on national television. I wanted to talk about living with Type 1 diabetes and how that was OK and that discrimination against anyone who has something different about them is wrong.
I have to calculate how many carbohydrates are in each meal, how much insulin I’ll need, how much fat is in the meal because that determines how long the meal will affect my body. There are many elements of eating that make it not fun. That might be one of the most unfortunate parts of life with diabetes, especially in our food-obsessed culture.
Everything crosses your mind when you are diagnosed with a chronic, lifelong illness, so I thought about how could I end it all. At times, the pain and the frustration seemed too much to handle.
I’m so grateful for my early years of learning to depend on my faith because I think that was the most important element in helping me see my way through the darkness of depression and feeling like everything was torn away.
We’re Disney lovers. We go there frequently, especially in spring and fall. The holidays are unmatched there. We’re not crazy. We don’t go in the summer.
I was in a local preliminary pageant, Miss Sarasota. I was a student at USF at the time. They called my name as the first runner up and instead of stepping forward, I fell backward. Another young woman caught me and they took me off the stage, and that’s when my family took me to the emergency room. After I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, I was forced to understand who I was with this disease. It was very difficult to feel frail, to feel broken in so many ways.
When I was Miss America, I never cut a ribbon to open an establishment or anything like that. I spent 365 days speaking before health care audiences — patients and professionals. The people I met influenced me and made me want to do something where I was giving back to the health and well being of others in a bigger way than I thought I was prepared to do at that point. That’s when I altered my plan from becoming a journalist taking the ‘Good Morning America’ route to going back to school and studying public health.
You can always make strides toward delaying or preventing. It’s proven that if you lose between 5% and 7% of your body weight and you walk 30 minutes a day, you can prevent the progression of diabetes by up to 58%.
In case you missed it:
- Greg Asbed is a ‘Florida Icon'
- Sherrill Milnes is a ‘Florida Icon'
- Florida Icon: Pedro José Greer Jr.
- Al Hoffman is a ‘Florida Icon'
- Ronald ‘Winky' Wright is a ‘Florida Icon'
- Steve Spurrier, Florida Icon
- Wilson Bradshaw is a ‘Florida Icon'
- Craig Fugate is a ‘Florida Icon'
- Michael Saunders is a ‘Florida Icon'
- Joey Cornblit is a ‘Florida Icon'
- Alex Sink is a ‘Florida Icon'
- Norman Braman is a ‘Florida Icon'
- Bello Nock is a ‘Florida Icon'
- Zev Buffman is a ‘Florida Icon'
- M.J. Soileau is a ‘Florida Icon'
- Susan Benton is a ‘Florida Icon'
- Terry Stiles is a ‘Florida Icon'
- Theresa Manuel is a ‘Florida Icon'
- Dan ‘Tater' Porter is a Florida Icon
- Joe Redner is a ‘Florida Icon'
- Ron Magill is a ‘Florida Icon'
- Artis Gilmore is a ‘Florida Icon'
- An Interview with George Billiris
- Frank Morsani is a ‘Florida Icon'
- Alto ‘Bud' Adams Jr. is a ‘Florida Icon'
- Winston Scott is a 'Florida Icon'
- Florida Icon: Carlton Ward Jr.
- Florida Icon: Mel Tillis
- Robert M. 'Bob' Beall II is a Florida ‘Icon'
- Peter Meinke - A life in poetry
- Carl Hiaasen is a Florida ‘Icon'
- Nan-Yao Su is a Florida 'Icon'
- Roland Martin is a Florida ‘Icon'
- Florida Icon: Derrick Brooks
- An interview with Annika Sorenstam
- Iconic Florida developer H. Irwin Levy
- ‘Alligator' Ron Bergeron is a Florida Icon
- Howard Schnellenberger is a Florida 'Icon'
- Florida Icon: Barbara Mainster
- Florida Icon: Walter Lanier ‘Red' Barber
- Louise Gopher is a 'Florida Icon'
- H. Lee Moffitt is a 'Florida Icon'
- Kiran Patel is a 'Florida Icon'
- 'Florida Icon' Howard C. Tibbals shares life lessons
- Alex D. Brickler is a 'Florida Icon'
- Life lessons from hockey great Phil Esposito
- Lucy Morgan is a 'Florida Icon'
- Donald Goodman is a 'Florida Icon'
- Ed Droste is a 'Florida Icon'
- Ray Ferrero Jr. - Florida Icon
- W. George Allen is a 'Florida Icon'
- Tom James is a 'Florida Icon'
- Patrick Smith is a 'Florida Icon'
- Jerry Uelsmann is a 'Florida Icon'
- John L. Parker is a 'Florida Icon'
- C.C. 'Doc' Dockery is a 'Florida Icon'
- Toni Jennings is a 'Florida Icon'
- Dave Barry is a 'Florida Icon'
- Shaquille O'Neal is a 'Florida Icon'
- Ruth Alexander is a Florida Icon
- Brian Johnson is a Florida Icon
- Florida Icon: Sam Gibbons
- Thomas 'Blue' Fulford
- Icon: Don 'Big Daddy' Garlits
- Icon: Charles E. 'Chuck' Cobb Jr.
- Icon: John DeGrove
- Icon: Charles Gray
- Icon: Harry Crews
- Icon: Burt Reynolds
- Icon: Tibor Hollo
- Icon: Gary Mormino
- Icon: Richard Gonzmart
- Icon: Bob Graham
- Icon: Ward Hall
- Icon: Eugenie Clark
- Icon: Warrick Dunn
- Icon: Arthur Rutenberg
- Icon: Chris Evert
- Icon: Preston Haskell
- Icon: Joseph Kittinger
- Icon: The Fanjul Brothers
- Icon: Romero Britto
- Icon: Steve Raymund
- Icon: Cesar L. Alvarez
- Icon: Juan 'Chi Chi' Rodriguez
- Icon: Gay Culverhouse
- Icon: Gene Leedy
- Icon: William R. Hough
- Icon: Peter Prichard
- Icon: Ed Price
- Icon: David L. Paul
- Icon: Jan Garavaglia
- Icon: Claude R. Kirk Jr.
- Icon: Don Zimmer
- Icon: Kenneth H. 'Buddy' MacKay
- Icon: Dick Vitale
- Icon: Michael Gannon
- Icon: Marcella Hazan
- Icon: Tony Little
- Icon: Wade L. Hopping
- Icon: Edgar Mitchell
- Icon: James Rosenquist
- Icon: Bob Martinez
- Icon: Arnold Palmer
- Icon: Don Shula
- Icon: Mike Peters
- Icon: Margaret D. Lowman
- Icon: Doug Williams
- Icon: Bob Butterworth
- Icon: Fred Schultz
- Icon: Eugene Patterson
- Icon: Harris Mullen
- Icon: Bill Haast
- Icon: Marion P. Hammer
- Icon: Albert Dunlap
- Icon: Joseph Woodrow Hatchett
- Icon video: Joseph Hatchett
- Icon: Talbot 'Sandy' D'Alemberte
- Icon: John Walsh
- Icon: James Robert Cade
- Icon: Nathaniel Pryor Reed
- Icon: Gus Stavros
- Icon: Betty Castor
- Icon: Mary Ann Carroll
- Icon: George Steinbrenner
- Icon: Ferdie Pacheco
- Icon: Vic Dunaway
- Icon: George Smathers
- Icon: Phyllis Apple
- Icon: Nick Bollettieri
- Icon: Harris Rosen
- Icon: Max Mayfield
- Icon: Carrie Meek
- Icon: Andres Duany
- Icon: T. Willard Fair
- Icon: Bobby Bowden
- Icon: Stetson Kennedy
- Icon: Don Francisco
- Icon: Janet Reno
- Icon: Reubin O'D. Askew
- Icon: Clyde Butcher
- Icon: Willie Gary
- Icon: Wayne Huizenga