From Patient to Expert: An Endocrinologist Tells His Story

Dr. Mike Natter has never let his type 1 diabetes diagnosis at nine years old deter him from achieving his goals. The art student turned endocrinologist has allowed his creative flair and personal condition to connect with the patients he cares for each day.

According to the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, 352,000 children and adolescents under 20 years old have type 1 diabetes. Natter still recalls the moment he received the diagnosis when he was a child.

“It was hard. I was pretty scared and I was a young kid losing a lot of weight. I ended up in the hospital in a very scary place, I got close to death — it was bad,” Natter tells Healthnews.” I think the initial reaction was kind of shock and fear.”

Type 1 diabetes occurs when one’s pancreas doesn’t make enough or very little insulin, which helps blood sugar enter the body’s cells for energy. For those without insulin, blood sugar is unable to enter cells and therefore builds up in the bloodstream causing high blood sugar.

The CDC says it may take months or years before symptoms of type 1 diabetes kick in. However, once they begin, they can be extreme. Before receiving his diagnosis at nine years old, Natter experienced prior symptoms of type 1 diabetes.

“I was eight years old in summer camp, and I had a viral illness, I had some gastroenteritis, diarrhea, and I just didn’t feel well,” Natter says. “After that, I was having weight loss, extreme thirst, and extreme urination, and those are the very classic signs of type 1 diabetes.”

Dr. Mike Natter
Courtesy of Dr. Mike Natter

As a child growing up in the Empire State watching Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks, Natter enjoyed getting to play basketball. But with a condition like type 1 diabetes, hobbies are impacted.

Although exercise is important, physical activity for type 1 diabetes patients can lead to the risk of low blood sugar.

Symptoms include dizziness, confusion, anxiety, sweating, shaking, and a fast heartbeat. To reduce the chance of low blood sugar, Natter ensured to have some Gatorade or a sugary drink on hand which can help reduce chances of low blood sugar.

Along with basketball, Natter also had a deep passion for art.

“I was basically drawing since I could hold a crayon. I kind of feel like most of us do that. A lot of us as toddlers are fingerpainting, drawing, were doodling, and then something terrible happens and we stop,” Natter said. “For whatever reason and I don’t know why, I never stopped and continued doing it. It was really natural to me to always think and pictures and understand things in imagery.”

Ultimately, Natter decided to attend Skidmore College to pursue art. Luckily, the school’s liberal arts approach allowed Natter to dip his toes in neuroscience and psychology, which he enjoyed and did well in, giving him the confidence to further his academics.

After completing his undergrad at Skidmore, he shifted gears to Columbia University for a post-baccalaureate premedical program.

He went on to attend Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University to pursue his medical education.

Initially, Natter says he didn't want to become an endocrinologist just because he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. He thought because of his background in art, perhaps he’d enjoy surgery, plastic surgery, dermatology, or something similar. In the end, he ended up finding his destiny.

“I tried to go into it with an open mind and despite me thinking I'd enjoy more of a tangible field. I found that I really liked people and really liked longitudinal relationships and seeing people over a long span of time and not just intervening and not seeing them again,” Natter explains. “I really felt like there is some kind of magic that happens when you are in a partnership with a patient helping them on this journey to getting better.”

Mixing art with medicine

Today, Natter is a board-certified internal medicine physician and endocrinologist currently practicing at NYU Langone Health in the Big Apple. He has over 100,000 followers on his Instagram account for his unique ability to make medical aspects understandable through art.

One of his artwork pieces on his Instagram account showcases the difficulty physicians have in providing patients with quality care. The physician appears to be burnt out due to the regulatory actions by the U.S. healthcare system, leaving medical professionals with little time for “self-care.” Healthcare workers have been associated with high rates of burnout in recent years due to the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I sometimes find what I’m experiencing, what I think in my own silhouette of the corner in this world, is actually very ubiquitous to a lot of physicians and patients. It is sometimes fun to educate people or illustrate something I am experiencing that I have a sense that might relate to a larger audience,” Natter says. “It is nice to have that chuckle with that wink and a nod that there is something wrong here and a motivation to change.”

Along with art being an escape for Natter, he also uses it as a way to connect with his patients in the doctor’s office.

“You don't have to have a medical background to understand an illustration. You don't have to speak English to understand Illustration. There is this universality of using illustration, comics, and drawings. It is something tangible they can hang their understanding on, and I really like that a lot," he says.

Natter’s ability to mix art with medicine has seen him awarded Endocrine Fellow of the Year in 2021 and 2022, along with the Fellow’s Teaching Award in 2022. He wants those who battle with type 1 diabetes to understand it is possible to overcome the roadblock and pursue your career of passion.

“It is very important to me I make it clear to my patients and I hope that I’m an example of how it is true that diabetes should not limit you,” Natter explains. “While it is harder in some situations, it doesn't mean you can't do it.”

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