What sophomore Jonathan Cobrda saw more of than he wanted to on a trip to the “most magical place on Earth” was the bathroom, and that was when he was lucky. “There were long lines for the bathroom at Disney, and sometimes I couldn’t wait,” said Cobrda, who was 12 years old at the time. “Thank God for Splash Mountain!”
Such is the part-drama, part-comedy the musical theatre major from Greensboro uses to describe one of the symptoms that led to the diagnosis that he had type 1 diabetes – a story he has developed into a one-man show about living with the disorder. In “Sweet ‘N Low: The True Story of One Diabetic’s Journey to Keep Spirits High and Sugars Low,” which Cobrda will perform Sunday, Jan. 30, at WCU, he shares details of his experience – from the extremely funny to the nitty-gritty – while informing his audience about diabetes.
“It is not my story,” said Cobrda about the show that he developed in high school that has become the linchpin of a yearlong, interdisciplinary learning initiative centered on health and wellness at WCU. “It is everyone’s story that has ever had complications with diabetes or their health.”
More than 3 million people are living with type 1 diabetes, a disorder in which the body has trouble regulating blood sugar levels and that can result in serious – even deadly – damage to a person’s organs, according to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. As a result, living with diabetes can require multiple daily blood tests and carefully balancing food and exercise. Untreated diabetes in the early stages can cause extreme thirst, frequent urination, drowsiness, vision changes, fruity or sweet breath and unconsciousness.
For Cobrda, the diagnosis came shortly after that trip to Disney, when his mother, who has type 2 diabetes, became concerned about his symptoms. When she tested his glucose level, she saw two letters: HI. The reading indicated his blood glucose level was over 500 milligrams of glucose per deciliter of blood – far above the normal 70 to 120 range listed by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
Cobrda said he felt like a victim of his own body, that having diabetes was his new identity and that he was just another number – one of the millions who have diabetes. Writing his story down and turning it into a performance with the help of a playwright and teachers in high school helped Cobrda combine his identities, he said. It means a lot to him that in “Sweet ‘N Low” he can connect his life of health to his life as an individual and a performer, he said.
He has performed the show across North Carolina as part of a campaign to raise support for and awareness of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and he continues to tweak and change the show. Sunday’s performance, sponsored by the Office of the Provost and the Office for Undergraduate Studies, will serve as an interdisciplinary learning event associated with a yearlong initiative of WCU’s Quality Enhancement Plan titled “Sweet ‘N Low: A Journey to Living Well.”
As part of the initiative, faculty and staff from a range of disciplines have hosted and continue to host discussions and educational activities on campus about health and wellness from a range of perspectives. Interdisciplinary activities include, for instance, first-year students in an integral arts seminar exploring advocacy through the arts just as Cobrda advocates for diabetes awareness and support through his show. (Proceeds from Sunday’s performance benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.) “The fact that Jonathan has taken a life experience and turned it into this project is a perfect example of art reflecting life and life informing art,” said D.V. Caitlyn, assistant professor of theatre.
Meanwhile, graduate students are engaging in research and hosting a public policy forum on health care. Nutrition students are designing and conducting community-based research and working with educational psychology students on an outreach effort to explore public school curriculum in relationship to promoting healthy life choices. Broadcast students are learning about effective video communication while recording Cobrda. Students in a first-year seminar completed a creative writing project as part of the initiative, and a public policy forum is being planned for February.
A number of the health and wellness scholarship activities linked to the initiative will be shared Sunday at a scholarship fair at the Fine and Performing Arts Center that begins an hour before Cobrda’s performance, and that is part of what Gabby Robinson, a freshmen chemistry major with a concentration in pre-medicine from Charlotte, said she is especially looking forward to seeing. Robinson has been heavily involved with promoting the Sweet ‘N Low learning initiative on campus, gathering materials for and helping prepare brochures and a website, in addition to creating a commercial for the event.
“There were many things that inspired me with this project – Jonathan’s story, how the play was created and the information the production has shared about type 1 diabetes,” said Robinson, who serves as a member of the First Year Experience student council. “I also am looking forward to the scholarship fair to see all of the different projects that other have worked on.”
Peter Savage, an assistant professor of theatre and member of the steering committee guiding the Sweet ‘N Low initiative on campus, said Sunday’s show will appeal to a broad audience, and he encouraged all members of the WCU community to attend. “Those who have diabetes or have been affected by diabetes will no doubt find a strong connection to the piece,” said Savage. “But those who have not been personally affected by the disease, like myself, will not only learn a great deal but will also be moved by the struggle and perseverance of Jon’s story.”
Jonathan Cobrda will perform his one-man dramedy “Sweet ‘N Low: The True Story of One Diabetic’s Journey to Keep Spirits High and Sugars Low,” at 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 30, in the WCU Fine and Performing Arts Center. Admission to the show is $5. A reception and scholarship fair featuring health and wellness projects at WCU will be held before the show at 2 p.m. in the FAPAC lobby. For more information, call the FAPAC box office at 828-227-2479.
By WCU student Claire Karriker