Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The gift of diabetes

It dawned on me, just the other day, that I've been living with diabetes (Juvenile or Type 1) for 35 years now. If it weren't for these pen needles (and all sorts of other paraphernalia which has evolved since 1983), I wouldn't be here, nor would my kids. If not for Frederick Banting and Charles Best, millions of people like me would have very short and tragic lives. You could say that I'm grateful to be on this side of the grass every day.

When I "came down with" diabetes back in 1983, it was kind of like coming down with the flu. I was sick with some sort of virus for a couple of days, and then went back to "normal" -- except for an unquenchable thirst. The thirst meant that I had to use the bathroom (where the smokers hung out) more often, and when I finally complained about it to my mom, she decided I should see our family doctor. He gave me a diet to follow for a day or two, and sent me for a blood test, which I took early one morning, just before heading to my university orientation day events.

I'll never forget my mom's relief when I got home late that afternoon. The blood test had come back with extremely high blood glucose results, enough for the doctor to call my mom immediately, concerned that I could drop into a diabetic coma at any moment. In those days before cell phones, Mom had no choice but to worry until I walked through the door at the end of the day.

What Mom told me when I arrived home was a shocker, but I did my best to take it in stride, spending a week at a diabetes clinic, learning about how to eat wisely, take insulin, test for blood sugars, and treat insulin reactions. My biggest worry at the time was missing a week of math class and not being able to catch up (and sure enough, I barely passed the course). Otherwise, I managed pretty well, or so I thought.

Being the only person with diabetes out of a large extended family, I've often been asked if there's a family genetic disposition toward it. I usually reply, "Nope, I just got lucky, I guess." But really, I have been lucky. For the first 8 years that I had diabetes, I was living in semi-denial. I took my insulin, but I wasn't particularly careful with my diet, even though I had met people with diabetes who were much younger than me and already having problems with their kidneys or eyesight. Complications are a big deal for people with diabetes. Heart and kidney disease often come with it, not to mention nerve damage, blindness and a host of other issues. Fortunately, I come from parents with pretty good genetics to begin with! Thanks, Mom and Dad!

It wasn't until I met the love of my life and we decided to have a family that I got really serious about my "regime." It took a lot more blood testing, constant insulin adjustment, and up to eight needles a day in order to have three healthy kids. If I'm honest, it's having my own little family who was counting on me that really shook me out of my denial and made me the healthy diabetic I am today. My acquaintances always seem to be surprised if my diabetes somehow comes up in conversation.

My comment about just getting lucky, having diabetes, might seem like a flippant one, and honestly, it was for many years, but now, it's true. My diabetes has been a gift in many ways. Not that I wouldn't be thrilled if someone came up with a cure and I could live without my 5 shots a day, finger pokes, and tingling feet (I'm starting to get some neuropathy, and I blame the vertigo that I've learned to live with for the last six years on it). I'd love to eat anything I want without worrying about my blood sugar levels, too. But at the same time, I do see where my diabetes has made my entire family live better in many ways. My intimate knowledge of the Canada Food Guide from my youth means I've always been one to cook pretty balanced meals, and the general lack of sweets in our home means my kids have grown up healthy and cavity free.

Not that there haven't been challenges. Switching from beef and pork (belated thanks, cows and pigs...) to newer synthetic insulins was tricky, and there have been times when my life swung widely between highs and lows until things evened out or a new insulin came along. For a while, my blood sugar control was too tight, and one time my mom saved me from a certain car accident because of and unexpected low blood glucose level. But for the most part, I have a pretty good sense of my body, probably better than I would have if I didn't have to poke my finger regularly and pay so much attention to how I'm feeling.

But the real reason that I am moodling about this topic today is that I wouldn't be a healthy person at all without the help and support of dozens, if not hundreds, of people. I owe a huge debt of thanks to my parents and sisters, my husband and kids, many friends, and hundreds of health care professionals who have shown me how to live well with a chronic disease. I absolutely love my present endocrinologist, Dr. H. And, of course, I have nothing but deep gratitude for Banting and Best -- and all those who are working in medical research and development to cut the impact of diabetes in our world. Diabetes doesn't have to be a death sentence, and for that, I am profoundly grateful.

Thank you from the bottom of my pancreas and the depths of my heart to all those who have been so supportive for these 35 years!

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