After All These Years: Betty Adamski Schunke Recalls Diabetes Icons

Clara Barton c. 1905

| May 4, 2007

On March 28, 1950, nine-year-old Betty Adamski Schunke entered the hospital with a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes. She remembers the date vividly. She also remembers the words of her pediatrician, one of the first women in the field: “You can do anything you want to do as long as you remember you have diabetes and plan accordingly.” A feisty, stubborn little girl who strove for perfection and never backed down, she took it for her motto.

As a youngster, Betty spent summers at the Clara Barton Camp.  The campers used to go out to Dr. Joslin’s farm on Sundays and “we had all kinds of treats out there, like hay wagon rides and seeing the animals. We always got watermelon for an afternoon snack, and it was just a really fun place to go when we were kids. Dr. Joslin interacted with us at the farm and really enjoyed having the children.” She notes that people rarely saw this lighter side of Dr. Joslin, because the diabetes pioneer was so unbendingly convinced that careful control reduced complications. Eventually, of course, he was proven right, but he did not live to see it. 

In her early twenties, Betty worked as a nurse at Camp Joslin for boys. There she met Dr. Best, famed co-discoverer of insulin. A friend of Dr. Joslin, he’d come to the camp to help celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. “The thing that impressed me most about him,” says Betty, “was that he was just a very down-to-earth person, and he was so excited to see the boys living in a relatively healthy way. He commented over and over again how special that was to him, to see all these boys having fun. And I kept thinking, but it’s thanks to you and your work with Dr. Banting that these boys are here. How do I say thank you to a man who basically gave me life?” She didn’t try to express her feelings because she realized that he was being thanked just by seeing the healthy campers and staff. 

Betty went on a pump eighteen years ago, when pumps were already pocket-sized.  She recalls a girl at camp who was one of the first children to try the pump, and at that time it was so huge it had to be set on a table. Betty had real hesitation about being connected to a machine, but once she tried it, she liked it. She’d also like to try a continuous glucose monitor, but they’re still too expensive.

Betty remarks that being on a pump is a challenge in a way that’s difficult to explain:  It’s not easy to use, and she’s constantly aware that something could go wrong with it. She thinks it’s simpler to use shots: they’re more of a pain but less challenging and, she believes, more reliable.

Betty has been in good control of her diabetes her entire life, and her A1c’s are almost always under seven percent. Since her original diagnosis, she has never been hospitalized or required emergency care because of diabetes. She underwent laser treatments in both eyes about eighteen years ago, but that’s been her only complication.

Betty notes that children did as they were told when she was young, so she never even considered not closely managing her diabetes. Sure, she wishes for even a couple of hours when she didn’t have to think about it, because the constant awareness required by the disease is exhausting. But she’s never reached the point of letting down her guard. She’s convinced that if she takes a break, she will pay for it later.

Betty has always been very active. Weather permitting, she walks three miles at least four days a week. In the winter, she skis in the mountains of Colorado, and in the summer, she and her husband go hiking and backpacking in the wilderness. They’ve traveled to each and every state, but she’s never had a problem on any backpacking trip. It takes a lot of thought and testing to be so active, but with careful planning, she has been able to handle all the challenges.

Betty’s convinced that you can’t reach perfection in diabetes management, but if you’re willing and determined to really work at it, you have an excellent chance. After all, you can do anything you want to, as long as you remember you have diabetes and plan accordingly.

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Categories: A1c Test, After All These Years, Diabetes, Diabetes, Insulin, Living with Diabetes, Personal Stories, Type 1 Issues

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