Fifty Years With Diabetes: A Microbiology Professor Shares His Story

| Jul 1, 2007

I was diagnosed with diabetes in September 1953. During that summer, I was in my second year of graduate school at UCLA when I noticed that I was losing weight and had severe polyuria (frequent urination).

I saw two different physicians who treated me for a urinary tract infection, but I did not improve. Finally, friends referred me to a third doctor who ordered a routine urinalysis that showed a positive test for glucose levels.

In those days my wife and I had no telephone, so I received a telegram from the doctor's office telling me to go to the emergency room. I tried to put it off until after the upcoming Labor Day weekend, as we were planning to attend the wedding of a fellow graduate student. The doctor's response was that if I did not report to the hospital, I might not be alive after the weekend. So, I gave in and reported to the hospital, where the glucose tolerance test showed a blood sugar of 600 mg/dL.

I was admitted to the hospital and started on regular insulin, followed by several days of adjustment of insulin dosage. While in the hospital on Labor Day Weekend, I read an article in Life Magazine by Billy Talbert, an outstanding tennis player, in which he described how he cared for his diabetes and continued to play tennis for many years.

This article was instructive for me since I knew little about diabetes - and I was heading for denial. Talbert's article greatly influenced me to accept my condition and realize that I could adjust to and properly manage it. Billy Talbert died at age eighty years, and had diabetes for seventy of those years. So why couldn't I do that too?

My wife, Marion, and I had been married only three years when I was diagnosed with type I diabetes. Marion learned everything that I learned about diabetes in those early days, including basic insulin injection techniques and how to sterilize steel needles and glass syringes by placing them in boiling tap water for ten minutes before each injection. What a difference from the disposable needles and syringes that became available some twenty years later.

I usually gave my own injections, but in the fall of 1953 we both became ill with flu-like symptoms and I wasn't feeling well enough to give myself an injection. So one evening I asked Marion to give me my insulin shot. Shortly after injecting the needle in my upper arm, she handed me the syringe, and then fainted at the end of the bed. What a learning experience for her and for me too! I'm happy to report that she gave me insulin injections many times over the years without any further problems.

In the fall of 1955, I was busy with graduate studies and research while trying to keep my diabetes under control. I had many problems trying to adjust to the proper insulin dosage. Finally, my doctor had me hospitalized to regulate my insulin requirements. When I was discharged from the hospital, I was taking ninety units of insulin per day.

A few days later, while talking to fellow graduate students in the laboratory, I realized my blood sugar was dropping, so I went searching for sugar cubes that my professor kept in his laboratory. Soon I lost consciousness and was taken to the emergency room at UCLA Medical Center, where it was determined I had a blood sugar reading of 23 mg/dL. I woke up surrounded by people in white coats, which made me think I might be in heaven.

I was brought back to reality when someone asked whether I should be catheterized. I assured them there was no need for that. Several days later, I was discharged from the hospital with a reduced insulin dosage. I returned to my studies and subsequently received my MA in 1955 and PhD in 1957 in different areas of microbiology.

We returned to San Diego, where I eventually began lecturing part-time at San Diego State University. In 1960, I received a tenure track appointment in microbiology, and teaching students became my passion for the next 35 years. I retired from San Diego State University as emeritus professor of microbiology.

Over the years, the daily challenges of diabetes have continued to require much attention, as well as a few emergency trips to the hospital. For years, I tested my urine at home to determine if my glucose levels were too high. Frequent trips to the bathroom provided another clue. Subsequently, finger sticks became the more reliable procedure for checking blood sugar levels. In addition, new insulin options became available, as well as insulin pumps.

In 2001, I began the use of an insulin pump, which provided better control. While there were challenges in getting started using it, I found it to be a useful tool. However, as other medical problems arose, including Parkinson's Disease, I began having difficulty managing the pump, so I returned to daily injections. After having used the pump several years, I found it necessary to again learn to adjust my insulin levels and test frequently to gain sufficient control of my blood sugars.

In 2003, I was recognized and presented with medals from Eli Lilly and Co. and from Joslin Diabetes Center, Boston, for having been on insulin treatment for fifty years or more. In that time I've seen numerous changes in the tools, techniques, and philosophies surrounding the treatment of diabetes, and I have been blessed with wonderful family, friends, colleagues, and devoted students.

While those fifty-plus years have brought a lot of challenges in the management of my condition, I've learned skills that translate well to other areas of my life. I have found that learning as much as possible about my condition and being an advocate for myself is critical.

I also have learned the value of trusting and leaning on others such as family, friends and even strangers for help when needed. Looking ahead, my goal is to continue to manage my diabetes with whatever tools are available, and also witness a cure for type 1 as well as type 2 diabetes.

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Categories: Blood Sugar, Diabetes, Diabetes, Inspiration, Insulin, Insulin Pumps, Personal Stories, Syringes, Type 1 Issues, Type 2 Issues


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