After 50 years, type 1 Suzi Vietti Has Mastered Her Disease

Suzi Vietti

| Jul 3, 2014

One thing most people who know 63-year-old Suzi Vietti should realize by now is that saying, “never” to her is like issuing a double-dog dare, and it might be one of her most detested words, given the number of times she has heard it.

The longtime diabetic has overcome numerous mountain-sized obstacles over the years, even as she has watched the technology addressing her disease progress. So, if she had been put into a time machine back in 1964, when she was 14 and first diagnosed with type 1, and sent into the future, she would have been floored by what she saw.

“One would not even believe it was the same disease,” the Kansas woman said.

Because she was not made aware of how serious type 1 diabetes was in 1964, she took everything doctors told her with a huge grain of salt.

When she was first diagnosed, they told her to avoid major physical activity to prevent blood sugar fluctuations, so she went for day-long water skiing trips with her cousins and took up running, eating as much as she could before she set out to avoid crashing.

They told her she should never get pregnant – “Oh, no, you cannot, you are a diabetic,” her doctors she found an obstetrician who was also diabetic and had three pregnancies that resulted in one healthy son, another son who died in infancy and healthy twin daughters.

So when she experienced severe health issue just before her daughter’s 2004 wedding in Colorado – about with transverse myelitis, a neurological disorder caused by inflammation of the spine – doctors there said she is never drive a car again, there was no chance she’d run again and chances were, she’d be lucky if she could walk.

Never. There it was.

However, this was a woman who as a teenager just entering the difficult adolescent years had been required to test her glucose levels by dipping yellow paper strips in her urine, then comparing her results to the colors on the chart. It was a detestable task but made her stronger because of it, so who were they to tell her anything?

It was like a flashback to those early nerves, which are still seared in her brain. When she was first diagnosed, she was handed a book to read, orange and a syringe, the tools required for her to learn how to inject her own insulin. That would end up being NPH, a synthetic, intermediate-acting insulin that she felt as tied to as a ball and chain.

It did not help that Vietti’s first doctors seemed to her to know about as much about her disease and how to manage it as she did, especially when they were not quite sure whether to raise or lower her insulin doses based on her physical responses.

“I was terrified,” she said. “It was not a good age.” Not only that, her parents were facing their own issues – her dad had an alcohol problem while her mother spent much of her focus on him - so Vietti alone was in charge of her disease.

Her solitude made her a bit defiant, so when it came to the urine testing, for a while she just skipped the entire process and made up numbers to show her doctors during visits.

“It was a pain, and it was embarrassing,” she said. “In a way, it is a miracle that I am here today. My mother did the best she could with what she had, but she would tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘you’re too good to have diabetes.’ It was rough.”

She survived high school, though she developed an eating disorder along the way, so, in college, she entered the medical field in hopes of learning more about her disease.

As a medical technologist, she was one of the first people to use the early forms of test strips that used blood to test glucose. It was a stick rather than the small strip of today, but was still a vast improvement over the urine test Vietti despised. (Now, despite testing her blood sugar as many as 10 times a day, she never complains of the finger pricks, given the messy alternative from her past.)

Since those early days of managing her diabetes rather precariously, Vietti has been Uber-vigilant about her health. She married an ophthalmologist who kept a close watch on her eyes, and she found Matthew Corcoran, MD, who specializes in diabetes, endocrinology and metabolism. Corcoran founded the Diabetes Training Camp, which helps people with diabetes make physical activity part of their lives, and he taught Vietti – alongside some professional and Olympic athletes - how to better manage her insulin and her exercise, so much so that she was able to train for a half marathon.

She loved the exercise, so rather than grabbing the first wheelchair available after her transverse myelitis diagnosis, she took the bet her daughters tossed her way. Next year, they’d all run a half marathon together.
While her therapy was painful, not only did Vietti learn to walk using a treadmill, she was soon also running, and a year after she completed her physical therapy, she and her daughters did run that half marathon.

Because of her devotion to fitness, Vietti was not all that interested in early insulin pumps, which included tubing that she felt would limit her ability to be active, but the arrival of the Omnipod changed her mind about not only pumps, but also about her diabetes.

“It is just god’s gift to the free world. It is the most wonderful thing ever,” said Vietti, who waited impatiently for access to the innovative pump that was first marketed on the East and West coasts but initially not the Midwest where she lived.

When she finally got one, her Omnipod became a constant companion, and she has since run two more half marathons and participates in grueling CrossFit classes. She is the oldest in her class, but she relishes in the mix of aerobic and anaerobic exercise that keeps her blood glucose levels stable throughout her workout. She is also a rock climber, a skydiver and flies a powered parachute, which earned her the designation of First Female Sport Pilot by the Federal Aviation Administration, after flying her parachute in each of the 48 continental United States.

Vietti also recently was named a 50-year Medalist by the Joslin Diabetes Center for her five decades of living successfully with the disease.

“It has been crazy, and I’ve had a crazy life, but I have a great respect for my disease,” she said. “In retrospect, I am glad I am a diabetic because it has helped me avoid many problems in my life,” especially obesity, the nation’s most pressing health crisis.

Up next for her is a parachuting trip to the rugged mountains of Utah with her husband, Bill.

“It has been a favorite of ours,” said the woman for whom the sky really is the limit.

“When they say, ‘you cannot, you are a diabetic,’ that is just not true, and I do not like to hear it,” she said. “At conferences, so many people come up to me and say ‘I am so glad you are here, because I have never really known anyone that’s been a diabetic for such a long time and has done all this stuff.’ I have not feared what was going to happen to me as I got older, I think that is part of the gift I can give to people. The world is wide open.”

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