Dine Fine for Diabetes Research

Wendy Thies Sell Co-Organizing Series to Benefit Sansum Diabetes Research Institute

For more than a decade, Wendy Thies Sell was the face of news on the Central Coast, starting as an anchor and on-air reporter in 1995 at KCOY before taking on an expanded role for KSBY in 1999. In 2008, the Wisconsin-raised broadcast journalist became pregnant with her first child and considered what life would be like with a baby while running the news at 5, 6, and 11 p.m. each day.

“I couldn’t imagine anchoring the news, getting home at midnight, taking care of a newborn, and doing it again the next day — it was such a demanding job,” said Thies Sell. “I decided that motherhood was more important than being on TV.”

It was a fortuitous move, as her daughter, Sienna, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 4. “She needed full-time care,” said Thies Sell. “It was really a shock to our family and life-altering for all of us.”

Once called juvenile diabetes, even though people are diagnosed into their fifties, type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which one’s pancreas no longer produces insulin. That requires vigilant, constant monitoring of carbohydrate intake as well as glucose and insulin levels. “I have to be her pancreas, essentially,” said Thies Sell.

In the beginning, that meant counting carbohydrates and calculating when to give an insulin injection. “That wound up being 10-12 times a day, with our daughter screaming,” she said. “It was a very difficult road.”

In just the last six years, the technology has revolutionized, thanks largely to the Sansum Diabetes Research Institute in Santa Barbara, a global leader in the field. Now, the 10-year-old Sienna has a continuous glucose monitor that her mom tracks through an app on her phone and an insulin pump that’s run via remote control.

“The people working on new technologies have just made tremendous strides, and there are so many tools that people didn’t have 5, 10 years ago,” said Thies Sell. “I’m grateful that she’s living in this day and age with terrific technology.” Both are hopeful that a cure could be right around the corner, whether via artificial pancreas or stem cell developments. “This is a very challenging, relentless disease,” she said.

It’s natural, then, that Thies Sell — whose 8-year-old daughter, Sonnet, does not have the disease — spends so much of her time these days educating about type 1 diabetes and raising money for research. Her latest effort is co-organizing a series of dinners at top Central Coast restaurants with wine provided by the region’s more interesting winemakers.

The first, on April 10, attracted 95 people and raised $25,000 over dinner at Ember in Arroyo Grande, with wines poured by Mike Sinor (Sinor-LaVallee, Ancient Peaks) and Ryan Deovlet (Deovlet, Biddle Ranch). The next is on May 17 at S.Y. Kitchen, with Ernst Storm pouring his Storm and Notary Public Wines and a welcome cocktail by master mixologist Alberto Battaglini. (Tickets are $175.) There’s also a third dinner planned for September 27 at the Wine Cask with Paul Lato, who plans to pour high-scoring bottles from magnum-sized and larger bottles. A fourth may occur as well by the end of the year.

The series, called Dinner with the Winemakers, is the culmination of Thies Sell’s personal and professional lives. During her TV days, she ran a long-format weekly wine show called Roots of the Vine. “My assignment was to come up with a wine story every week for four years,” she explained. “So I walked through the vineyards and toured the wineries of just about every winemaker on the Central Coast.” She’s stayed in touch over the years by writing freelance articles for a number of publications.

They remember her fondly, as evidenced when she reached out for their help with the series. “Every single winemaker that I’ve asked has said, ‘Of course, yes, I would love to,’” she explained.

In addition to the great food and wine, the dinners feature a special speaker. At Ember, Dr. Kristin Castorino brought one of her patients to discuss having type 1 diabetes while being pregnant. On May 17, the guest is Olympic gold medal swimmer Gary Hall Jr., who lives in the Santa Ynez Valley and, coincidentally, helped Storm with his harvest this past year.

After his first Olympics, Hall was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and his doctor said that he’d have to forget about his swimming career. So he found a better doctor, plotted a course to continue competing, and wound up being the fastest swimmer in the world for a time. “It’s just incredible what he was able to do,” said Thies Sell. “Now he’s in the Olympics Hall of Fame and is an expert in sports medicine who speaks all around the world.” He even recently spoke at the Vatican about stem cell research.

“The idea isn’t really to raise a lot of money, but to form relationships with people and raise awareness across the Central Coast about what Sansum Diabetes Research Institute does,” said Thies Sell. Hopefully, that will one day translate to less worrying for Sienna and family. “I don’t want her focus to be diabetes,” said Thies Sell. “We hope to talk about it less and less as the years go on.”

See sdrispecialevents.com for more information and tickets for the May 17 dinner at S.Y. Kitchen with winemaker Ernst Storm.