Delores "Dee" Brehm, Age 77: Living with Type 1 Diabetes for 58 years

Dee was diagnosed with type 1 in 1949

| Apr 2, 2008

When Dee Brehm was diagnosed in 1949 with type 1 diabetes, her prospects were not bright: a permanent chronic condition, a reduced life span, potentially devastating complications and perhaps no children. She married Bill Brehm in 1952, and they began a partnership knowing that together they would have to manage her disease. Dee subsequently defied the dim outlook for her life: She has two children and six grandchildren, and she has surpassed the half-century mark with this disease having been spared the ordeal of complications.

When Dee was diagnosed at 19, she was attending college in Michigan. So she had to assume full responsibility for her day-to-day care at a time when care was a challenge. The tools for managing diabetes were primitive: her glass syringes had to be boiled and their needles sharpened on emery cloth, and the only means of measuring her blood sugar was a urine test that required almost required chemistry lab-level procedures to process.

Dee, now a resident of McLean, Virginia, says, “I was blessed with having a committed husband and partner in my diabetes care all these years. I probably wouldn’t be alive were it not for him. However, he is very careful not to take away my independence, although we stay in close communication, and I report my tests to him wherever he is. Together, we decide on the adjustments needed to respond to the inevitable lows and highs. Two heads are better than one in this business. His vigilance is vital in helping me control my disease."

Formidable Teamwork

Dee and her husband have contributed $44 million to research a cure for diabetes

The couple appears to be an unbeatable team. Some time after she passed the 50-year “gold-medal” milestone with diabetes, he asked her one evening when she was preparing dinner what he could do to help her. In response, she said, “You can find a cure.” Bill was silent for a moment, and then simply said, “Okay.”

With that goal in mind, the Brehms began an odyssey in 1999 to learn about the work being done to cure diabetes, which ultimately led to their making a proposal to the University of Michigan to create a center devoted to finding a cure for type 1. They donated $44 million of their own funds to make the center a reality and to apply new tools to facilitate the search process – most most notably robust information science and systems analysis. Their goal is a cure in Dee’s lifetime, which is to be accomplished through “a multifaceted, frontal assault” to determine the causes of type 1 diabetes and how to cure it. Their approach depends heavily on collaboration and breaking down the administrative barriers that inhibit rapid progress.

Fears of Hypoglycemia

Despite being complication-free, Dee does not have an easy time with her diabetes. She tends to be brittle, causing her to constantly fear the onset of severe hypoglycemic episodes. To help her understand her trends and to determine adjustments in her program, she has kept meticulous records of her insulin doses and vital signs, including her weight and blood pressure. She is proud of her detailed records and notes that she has missed writing down a test result only once in 58 years. For her, discipline is key. Dee has taken well over 100,000 insulin injections and has tested her blood glucose more than 65,000 times since first getting a glucose meter to use at home.

The Joslin Diabetes Center has undertaken a study of patients who have survived with type 1 for more than 50 years. There are likely to be only about 500 to 600 individuals in the United States who have been so fortunate. Some of them, like Dee, have not developed complications. Dee’s records are an important part of the study, so all her attention to detail is paying off in ways that might help others. It is important to learn what has protected these people because that knowledge could contribute to the search for a cure. All in all, there is no question that we all appreciate the efforts and devotion of this couple on behalf of everyone afflicted with type 1 diabetes.

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Categories: Blood Glucose, Blood Sugar, Diabetes, Diabetes, Inspiration, Insulin, Living with Diabetes, Losing weight, Low Blood Sugar, Syringes, Type 1 Issues

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Posted by Anonymous on 4 April 2008

I was also diagnosed with diabetes in 1949 - at age 11. I am going strong - turning 70 this June. I also have escaped the severe complications, although I did have heart bypass surgery in 1979. My husband has been an invaluable asset. I am on an insulin pump and using a continous glucose monitor. While I don't have the ability to donate millions of dollars to diabetes research, I too hope to see a cure in my lifetime.

Posted by Anonymous on 4 April 2008

Many kudos to Dee Brehm. As a type 1 myself, stories like Dee's are heartwarming in realizing the longevity she has engaged in with diabetes. People such as this are heroes to those of us with type 1.

Posted by whimsy2 on 5 April 2008

I'd like to know more about how Dee calculates her insulin dosing. Of course, things have changed since her original diagnosis and glucose meters make keeping track of BGs a lot easier. I'm wondering if she made the connection between high glycemic index carbs, such as anything made with grains, potatoes, rice and starches and avoids them per Dr. Bernstein's methods. My own experience shows that avoiding these foods makes my potentially "brittle" diabetes a lot less brittle.

Posted by ntrubov on 5 April 2008


Hi, I really enjoyed reading about your life (your LONG life) with diabetes. Having only been dependent on "someone else's" insulin for only forty five years I consider myself a relative newcomer. But what interests me more is your lack of diabetic complications. I, myself, have none. I posted a comment a while back asking if there were any others of us out there in the real world who have not developed any of those complications with or WITHOUT "good" control of our condition. I am still waiting to hear more about this. But, in your case I guess I have one more piece of data. Thanks for sharing with us.

Nick Trubov CCP, LCP
Fort Smith, AR

Posted by Anonymous on 5 April 2008

I am very impressed with the funds that Dee and her husband made for diabetes research. I am also impressed with her miticulous record keeping. I myself have had type 1 for 36 years and haven't kept nearly as good records as Dee has.
I am interested in knowing if Dee ever considered using an insulin pump. I have three healthy children who show no signs of diabetes (all are over the age of 18)so far. If Dee didn't use an insulin pump, were her children healthy and have they shown any signs of diabetes?
Amazing article and to think of someone having no complications--awesome. I do have a bit of retinopathy on one eye and a bit of neuropathy, but no other complications so far. Way to go, Dee and I wish you many more decades of healthy life!


Posted by Richard157 on 5 April 2008

Hello Dee, I am pleased to meet you! That is wonderful that you have had Type 1 diabetes for so long and have no complications. I was diagnosed with Type 1 in 1945 when I was 6. I am now 68 and have been diabetic for 62 years. I had a few minor complications starting when I was in my late 40's. I did not learn about carb counting until the mid 1980's. When I started carb counting my control improvrd tremendously. My first glucometer was purchased at about that time. The carb counting and the glucometer turned my mediocre control into very good control. By the year 2000 I had A1c's less than 6.0. Since that time all my complications give me very little trouble. I am very healthy and I have had a wonderful life.

My wife comes from Falls Church, VA and she attended McLean High School. It's a small world. I was born in Roanoke, VA and attended Roanoke College and Va. Tech. I taught math at the college level for 34 years. I am now retired and live in Kingston, NY.

You are brittle and so was I before pumping insulin. I started pumping in June, 2007. I love my pump. I hope you consider pumping for the freedom and still better control that it provides. Good luck to you!


Posted by Anonymous on 6 April 2008

I have had type 1 for 48 years and got along very well for many years but, unfortunately I inherited familial hyperlipidaemia leading to high BP and triglycerides etc and as a result I now have hardening of the arteries, CKD and retinopathy. I try my hardest to keep blood sugar stable but it is very difficult. I am told it is not my fault but surely I can't be the only one with these problems.

Posted by Anonymous on 7 April 2008

Hi I have been type 1 for 43 years so a novice compared to some of you but no complications here either.

Posted by Anonymous on 7 April 2008

Congratulations Dee! Hope to continue to hear from you for an additional 20 years! I am a 58 yr old diabetic. Family history loaded w/diabetics. Mom was diagnosed at 13yrs old, she'll be 88 May 9,'08. Live birth 3 children, one 10.5 lbs, 2nd 13.3 lbs, 3rd 8.5 (me C-section). From 1933 - 1960 controlled w/diet alone. Sometime in '60's began oral medication. She probably didn't start w/insulin until sometime in the '70's. She's had very few complications, some retinopathy (she can't read) but her distance vision is not bad.
Mom experiance intermittant bouts of depression since her early 30's.(in her 40's spent several months in mental institution). She has take medication for "nerves" for 45 years (elevil, now celexa). Has suffered w/leg cramps for years(which were fairly controlled w/quinine pills.) Quinine no longer available from pharmacy. She's mobile w/a walker, had a stroke last June w/no visable lasting effects.
In May '06 became a permanent nursing home resident, her blood sugars are not nearly as controlled as they were while at home. Her sister has a similar life story (age 30 onset), she is 86 and has Alzheimers. She never had depression.

When mom celebrates her 88 birthday, she will have lived w/diabetes for 75yrs.

One of my sons, 36, put on oral medication. Second son has no trace yet. I believe there will be a cure. It's a billion dollar industry, there's more money in controlling blood glucose levels than curing the illness. I'm using the OmniPod pump w/better control than injections. Life is good!!!

Posted by Anonymous on 8 April 2008

i dont know much about type 1 diabetes. i know my parents have diabetes and taking care of them can be stressfull at times. for those who have diabetes, and or other unfortunate disease, may you find ease and comfort :)

Posted by Anonymous on 8 April 2008

i dont know much about type 1 diabetes. i know my parents have diabetes and taking care of them can be stressfull at times. for those who have diabetes, and or other unfortunate disease, may you find ease and comfort :)

Posted by Anonymous on 9 April 2008

While it's nice to see positive stories like this, we cannot let them have the general public think that a cure is not needed or that all cases of T1 are "manageable". For every Dee, there is 100 people who died early of terrible diabetes complications, some despite their best efforts.

We all need to realize that in most of these "long timers with no complications" stories, it is really the person's genes and not habits that saved them. And we all know we can't chose our genes. More and more studies are coming out showing the genetic link in diabetes complications. Consider these people lucky, even if they *did* follow a healthy diet, exercise, etc. Some do not and STILL live to 80.

The fact is, most T1 diabetics today with pumps, glucometers, and CGM have an A1c in the 7-8% range. Back in the days of urine testing and impure animal insulin, I am willing to bet that control was much poorer and plays little role in who survived to this day.

My 2 cents.

Posted by lhudgin on 16 April 2008

I have had Diabetes Type 1 for 43 years now and I am 53, I have been undercontrol all these years, and just recently have a little retinopathy in my right eye, I have a Great Retina Specialist taking care of me. The last 7 years I have been on insulin, Lantus and Humalog, Dr. said I was not a candidate for an insulin pump. I have lots of Diabestes on my Dad's side of the family. I have two healthy children who are 27 & 29 with no signs of Diabetes, I did loose one baby at 7 months, in 1977. I believe the key in controling Diabetes is accepting the disease at the very beginning. I have benefited from your story and the others who have sent commits. You do wonder how someone else is doing with the same disease you have, for so many years. Thanks so much for your contribution to the research of Diabetes, it will benefit us all in the future.


Posted by Anonymous on 26 April 2008

I am so pleased to meet you!! I am a 33 year old mother of two small children, living with Type I diabetes since age 20. I LOVE to read success stories such as yours, it gives drive and motivation to know that hard work can pay off!! I too, have a wonderful husband and diabetes partner that I share all my ups and downs with. I take very good care and focus on eating well. I have found that eating mainly whole foods, fruits and vegetables to be most beneficial to my sugar levels (60-120). In fact, my day to day intake is about 20 units!! I too use an insulin pump and LOVE it... let freedom ring!! Hugs and kisses to my fellow diabetic and role model... can't wait to see you in the news in 10 years from now!!!

Posted by AnnetteUK on 20 May 2008

Another inspirational diabetes survivor story.. thank you for sharing it Dee.
I am a 51 year type1'er who was on injections for 45 years and been on the pump for 6 years. The tech advances I [we] have witnessed is amazing. No complications for me so far thanks to the awesome genes my parents passed on to me. I think they are a major reason those of us in the 50 plus range have made it so long and so well through a very difficult journey with 'it'
My mother, bless her soul, never referred to it as a disease or illness .. always "Annette's complaint"
That helped me too :)
Thank Dee so much for your financial help in the search for the cure .. in our area we have raised a lot of money over the years for the "Walk for the cure of Juvenile Diabetes"

Posted by AnnetteUK on 20 May 2008

PS: I am a Joslin Diabetes Center patient and volunteer.. and was told by my health team there that I may be in that 50+ year study. I cannot wait for the results of that!

Posted by Anonymous on 5 June 2008

I have been a TypeI Diabetic for 38 years and will be turning 49 this year. I admire you. I still take 3 shots a day and use Humulin R & N insulin. I was wondering if you are on the newer insulins or the pump. I tryed the Lantus, but it did not work for me. I have been very fortunate and not have any complications yet. I do eat a fairly strict diet and stick to a routine.

Posted by Anonymous on 13 June 2008

Hi Dee,

Congratulations on your strong constitution! Like 2 cents who commented earlier, I believe that complications or lack thereof does have a sizable genetic component. But you certainly have taken your lot in live and made the most of it, for yourself and us too. I am most impressed by your funding of research outside of the typical foundation pathways. How can Eli Lilly and Novo Norddisk and Lifescan truly want to cure type 1 or type 2 diabetes? There are billions at stake in maintenance rather than a cure. Ten such companies gave more than $1 million a piece to ADA last year. And drug company reps sit on their Advisory Board. Our hopes for a cure lie with people like you. Many thanks!

type one for 21 years

Posted by ekhalter on 13 June 2008

I have had the pleasure of meeting Dee and Bill Brehm as I live in Ann Arbor,Michigan. As one might expect, they are optimists, committed to and believing in The Cure. Their optimism and love is infectious, inspiring others as many of the commenters here have testified to here.

Ellen Halter

Posted by tancey on 21 January 2009

hi Iwas born in england now live in australia developed type 1 in 1952 when i was just turned 15 yrs old. my diet consisted of 16 black lines (carbs) and 18
red lines (protien) testing urine boiling syringes it was a very trying time . my complications are bad kidneys I am saving for a pump

Posted by Leilla on 10 February 2009

I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes in 1945 at the age of 6. I have no complications except that I had heart bypass surgery in 1998. I have one child, born 1958. I was told when he was born that he would have no mental development and would probably be spastic. He has developed normally both physically and mentally, and is now a computer programmmer with our provincial university. His IQ at age 8 was tested at 136. Unfortunately, I did not have support or encouragement from my spouse who left the family when my son was under 2 year of age. I have managed to educate myself so that I could support my son, although with much difficulty due to the prejudice shown towards me because I was "a diabetic." I would like to encourage anyone starting out in the path to gain an education and/or training which would allow yourself to overcome this prejudicial barrier, which although is less intense now than it was when I was young, still exists. With the advent of the insulin pump, it has become possible for anyone who wishes to live an "almost normal" life to achieve their goals. I say "almost normal" because at present that's what it is. I hear people talking of cures but, because of the nature of autoimmune type 1 diabetes, I don't believe that it is curable condition.

Posted by Anonymous on 25 February 2009

I am 64 years old and was diagnosed in 1967, have some peripheral vascular probs, but no major intervention.My insulin regimen consists of sliding scale with humalog and NPH. Wish I could do better in the diet area, although at 6'4" 215 lbs, I am not over weight, and I work out for an hour daily. My A1C's have been around 6 for the last several years. My doc says the pump is more trouble than it's worth.I keep asking, and he keeps puting it off.

Posted by Anonymous on 16 December 2010

I have had Type 1 since 1959, (8 1/2 yrs. old) and after almost 52 years of this disease have had only a few complications. I love to travel, and I keep my insulin in a Frio for temperature control.
This has worked well in Mexico, Spain, Egypt, Jordan, Eastern Europe, Russia, Morocco, and other countries in the Mediterranean. I love to hear about people who've surpassed 50 years. I would encourage anyone with diabetes to learn all they can about how to deal with it and not let this condition stop them from doing what they want to do. I was a teacher in the US and Germany for a total of 32 years, and for 10 years took middle-schoolers on day-long or overnight sailing/camping trips in Puget Sound. The world and its treasures can be open to all of us!

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