A Hero's Medal

How I Crossed the 50-Year Finish Line

| Jan 1, 1999

Last month I received a medal from the Joslin Diabetes Center for surviving diabetes for over 50 years. I became part of an elite group of over 1200 type 1s who refuse to surrender to diabetes and keep on going despite some heavy loads on our systems. How do you survive this disease and keep on living life to the fullest? It isn't easy, or they wouldn't hand out hero medals to us survivors.

I think one of the most important reasons I've done so well is because of my husband, Ron. He has been my inspiration. When I met him, I smoked, exercised little and really wasn't on a healthy diet. His father had died at age 50 from a heart attack and he was determined that wouldn't happen to him or anybody he loved. The first Christmas we were married, we both quit smoking cold turkey. That was 30 years ago. He has always pushed me to exercise more than I thought I ever could.

When I was first diagnosed, exercise was never stressed. Everyone wanted me to take it easy. In fact, I was excused from high school physical education classes because my doctor thought it might be too strenuous and cause low blood sugars.

In the early 1970s we moved to California, where fitness was in, and we joined in. We started with hiking, then Ron encouraged me to join him in running competitions.

I remember one particular race when we were with a group of avid runners. They had all finished the race and were enjoying the refreshments. Ron was outside looking for me, thinking I might have had a reaction and collapsed on the side of the road. I was the very last person to finish. I was wearing brand new shoes and my feet were killing me! I could barely walk, but I was determined to finish.

At the awards ceremony, all of my friends waited anxiously to see if they had won in their age groups. None of their names was called, but mine was. I had placed third in my age group and received a trophy all of them envied.

A major consideration for people with diabetes during exercise is low blood sugar. This has never happened to me during exercise, but sometimes shows up a few hours later or the next morning. It takes my body that long to adjust to any kind of changes. Whenever I exercise I always have my glucose tablets on hand. I always listen to my body and it's never let me down.

My meal plan is pretty much the same every day. I wake at 7 a.m., take my insulin and eat a breakfast of cereal and skim milk. If it's the weekend or we're on vacation, I may go back to bed for a few hours, but not before I test my blood to make sure I'm not too low. I eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and try to stay away from fats. I take my lunch to work. It's a sandwich, a salad or a low-fat frozen dinner, no-fat yogurt, and a piece of fruit. I usually eat my yogurt or fruit in the afternoon. Dinner consists of meat, fish or pasta, and two vegetables or a salad and one vegetable.

When I'm on vacation or sometimes on the weekend I do splurge and go out for brunch and do enjoy a steak and fried onions occasionally. But I strive to avoid fried and fat foods. Sometimes it's really hard to pass up the fries, but nobody's perfect. Strive for perfection and settle for the best you can do.

Managing diabetes for a half century hasn't always been easy. I spent my 51st birthday in the hospital celebrating a triple bypass. My cholesterol at this time was 147 (the lowest of any of my doctor's patients). Why then, did I have to have a bypass when I seemed to be so healthy? For three reasons: I'm female, I have diabetes and I was a smoker at one time, all of which contribute to narrowing of the arteries.

I've also had laser treatments on my right eye, a carotid endarterectomy (surgery to unblock a neck artery that carries blood to the head) and some severe insulin reactions, two for which Ron had to call 911 because he was unable to bring me out.

Despite these setbacks, I consider myself to be in good health. We've worked hard at keeping my diabetes under tight control after we found out how important that was to prolonging the lives of people with diabetes. I try to test my blood sugar four times a day, but sometimes my fingers can't take it, yet I always test before bed and first thing in the morning.

I still participate in an occasional organized run or walk and last December came in second in my age group. While I really just wanted to finish, I ended up walking 13-minute miles, a record for me.

There are dangers on the diabetes road, but with discipline you can avoid them. If you want to live to my age with relatively few complications, channel your energy where it can do you some good. Don't let anybody tell you what you can't do unless they check with you first. You can have diabetes and still live a normal life. I'm living proof.

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