“It’s never too late.”

One weekend in July of 2020, Whitley Smith got a headache.

 “Usually if I take ibuprofen, that’ll knock my headaches out,” she said. But this time, the dull ache stuck around. By Sunday, she was dizzy. “I just thought maybe I was getting an inner ear infection or vertigo. On Monday I went to work and I was pretty dizzy and my eye focus wasn’t the greatest.”

With her arm resting on the railing, Whitley looks into the camera resolutely.
“I thought I had a bad case of vertigo,” said Whitley.

Things worsened throughout the week. She saw her primary care physician, who checked her balance and prescribed something to combat what he agreed might be vertigo. But by Friday, the dizziness and nausea were worse than ever.

Whitley looks at the computer screen of Dr. Kyle Rosenstein, a white man with wavy light brown hair, who is pointing at the screen. He is wearing a light gray suit jacket over a white button-up shirt, an N-95 face mask, and a pair of light-rimmed glasses.
Whitley knew something was wrong, but she was determined to push through it.

“I drove to work that morning and I really shouldn’t have,” said Whitley. “I’m a cardiopulmonary technician [at UK HealthCare], and I had probably about 20 patients that day. Then I went to the bathroom, and took my mask down because my face felt a little bit funny. I had some right facial droop and I was like, yeah, that’s not supposed to be there. I went to the ER and they called an immediate stroke alert.”

An over-the-shoulder shot of Whitley wearing a face mask and looking at a computer screen.
Because Whitley works at UK HealthCare, she was able to get to the ER quickly after her stroke.

At the age of 32, Whitley was having a stroke. It’s extremely rare for a person as young as she was—except for the fact that she’s had Type 1 diabetes since the age of three, and struggled to keep her blood glucose under control. As a result, one of the small vessels deep within her brain became blocked.

A photo of Whitley and her daughter, Essence Smith, a young African-American girl with curly black hair in a ponytail, looking off camera.
“My daughter is very compassionate towards [my diabetes],” said Whitley.

“Elevated blood glucose over time can lead to inflammation in small vessels,” explained Dr. Kyle Rosenstein, an endocrinology fellow at UK HealthCare’s Barnstable Brown Diabetes Center. “The longer you live with hyperglycemia, the more accustomed your body gets to it, and you can silently develop cardiovascular disease, leading to stroke and heart attack.”

A close-up photo of Dr. Rosenstein looking into the camera. The background behind him is blurry.
Dr. Rosenstein developed a personalized plan to help Whitley manage her Type 1 diabetes.

Whitley was admitted to Albert B. Chandler Hospital for several days to deal with the after-effects of her stroke, including a condition called horizontal and vertical nystagmus. “It’s basically where your eyes shake,” Whitley said. “I really thought that I had lost my eyesight at that point—that was terrifying. I couldn’t see straight for probably about a week and a half. It took about four weeks for my eyesight to totally resolve itself.” 

A photo of Whitley and Essence in a greenhouse. Both of their hands are extended and reaching out to touch the leaves of a plant.
“Now I have a retina specialist,” said Whitley. “[We’re] keeping an eye on everything at this point.”

Before her stroke, Whitley had a hard time controlling her diabetes. For decades, her blood glucose was erratic, even when she was on insulin pump therapy in 2015. “I used it for about nine or ten months,” she said. “But the problem with my diabetes is I would have a lot of critical lows, to the point where I was unresponsive and comatose. And I would have to use Glucagon emergency kits, which my dad and my brother would have to administer to me if I was unconscious. I got very frustrated with that because, yes, it brought my A1C down, but I was bottoming out a lot when I was asleep.”

A candid photo of Whitley leaning against a counter and looking off into the distance while holding her insulin pump.
Adding a continuous glucose monitor helped Whitley gain a healthy control over her levels.

Without a continuous glucose monitor, Whitley’s pump wasn’t as effective as she needed it to be, and she went back to manual insulin injections. But after her stroke, she became more determined than ever to get her diabetes completely under control. Working with the team at the Barnstable Brown Diabetes Center, she eventually transitioned to a newer insulin pump technology, with an integrated continuous glucose monitor to help her track her blood glucose in real time and better manage her diabetes.

A close-up photo of the glucose monitor on Whitley’s arm.
“As soon as I got the pump, everything just kind of fell into place,” said Whitley. “That was huge.”

“I was dreading being back on an insulin pump,” said Whitley. “But the continuous glucose monitor has helped tremendously. To be able to see my glucose every five minutes and to be able to act on it, that helps a lot. I have become a very big advocate for anybody to get an insulin pump and a continuous glucose monitor, because they work hand-in-hand.”

A photo of Whitley, her father, Vincent Smith, and Essence standing together and smiling for the camera. Vincent is an older African-American man with a bald head, graying goatee, and glasses. He is wearing a black hoodie over a gray t-shirt and blue jeans.
Before getting her continuous glucose monitor, Whitley’s father, Vincent, would have to monitor her glucose levels while she slept.

“She now has unbelievable control,” said Dr. Rosenstein. “She’s not having highs or lows. I’ve never really seen a turnaround like that before. Obviously, she had a scare in the hospital, and she’s fortunate to not have residual issues from it.”

Both Whitley and Dr. Rosenstein attribute much of her success to the treatment and education she’s received from the team at the Barnstable Brown Diabetes Center.

An over-the-shoulder shot of Whitley checking her insulin levels on her iPhone.
Whitley can now track her glucose levels in real time through her phone.

“Our diabetes educators are amazing,” Dr. Rosenstein said. “Our educators are on the phone or doing one-on-one teaching from the time our clinic opens until it closes.  The most important things [they teach] are the basic techniques of diabetes management such as reacting to low and high blood sugars, proper nutrition, dosing insulin for food intake and day-to-day adjustments for a wide spectrum of patients…we want to give people the tools to do it on their own.”

A close-up photo of Dr. Beth Holden, an older white woman with short blonde hair, showing a device Whitley. Dr. Holden is wearing a white lab coat over a white shirt, and a gray face mask.
The Barnstable Brown team helped Whitley learn how her new equipment worked.

Today, Whitley is the most optimistic she’s been about her diabetes since she was first diagnosed, close to three decades ago. It took a catastrophic health event to help her get on track, but now that she’s here, she’s looking forward with more hope than ever.

A photo of Essence looking up at Whitley as they hug.
Whitley wants her daughter to know that it’s important to take care of yourself.

“It’s never too late to get your health under control,” said Whitley. “I thought that I really wouldn’t live that long with Type 1 diabetes. [But] having the insulin pump and dealing with Barnstable Brown has made me have a totally different outlook. Sometimes it’s the bad things that make us have a bigger outlook on improving our health, and having a stroke definitely did that for me.”

Whitley smiles warmly for the camera with the glucose monitor on her arm visible.
“At the end of the day, it would make me happy if [this] is able to help someone,” said Whitley.

See how we care for patients like Whitley

at Barnstable Brown Diabetes Center.

Fielden Bechanen, a teenage white girl with long reddish brown hair, grins broadly as a blue bus with the UK logo passes behind her in a blur. She is wearing a tee shirt with her sorority letters, a blue denim jacket, and gold jewelry.