I was diagnosed with type I insulin-dependent diabetes 54 years ago at the age of 22 months. A dear family friend suggested my parents take me to our family doctor and have me checked for diabetes after I showed some of the more common symptoms. I was unusually cranky and always hungry, but had a stomach that was hard to the touch as though food was not digesting properly. I was also always thirsty, drinking a lot and urinating frequently. Our doctor tested my blood sugar, and the result was high enough to indicate diabetes. He put me on 60 units of insulin per day and told my parents to take me to the hospital 30 miles from the little Western Kansas town where we lived to get a shot of insulin once a day.
Because I was such a small child, I had one insulin reaction after another on that dosage. My parents were forced to seek other medical advice when this doctor would not listen to what they were telling him or consider making changes in my treatment.
My loving parents then took me to another doctor, Dr. William Brenner, for whom they had a huge amount of respect. Dr. Brenner had grown up in my father’s hometown, so my parents knew him well. He was a man of great character, compassion and integrity, who had survived the infamous Bataan Death March in the Philippines in World War II. His practice was in Larned, Kansas, a town 60 miles away. Dr. Brenner agreed to treat me as his patient, but only if my parents first took me to a diabetes specialist who practiced in Wichita, Kansas.
My parents, who were willing to do anything it took to aid my survival, did so. The diabetes specialist told them it was a wonder I had survived being on 60 daily units of insulin. He sent me home on two units of insulin a day. Both he and Dr. Brenner told my parents they had a choice: They could raise me as a “normal” child or they could raise me as a child with a crippling disability. To their credit and my joy, my parents chose to raise me as close to normal as it’s possible for a diabetic to be. My life, to this day, has surpassed most expectations.
Very Different from Today
When I was first diagnosed, glass syringes, which had to be boiled for sterilization purposes, were used to administer shots, and blood had to be drawn at a hospital lab to determine exact blood sugar count. At home, blood sugar ranges were imprecisely measured by urinating on special strips. Fortunately, diabetes care has improved a great deal. One of the most important aspects of care is still the same: A person with a chronic condition needs to be her own case manager and to be very much in tune with her own body. During my life, I have had both wonderful doctors and those who treated all diabetics the same and were not interested in listening to me. As my own best advocate, I have changed doctors if needed. I consider it essential to be able to talk with and to my health care providers.
Having much to learn, there was any number of ups and downs as I grew. When I was young and had the flu, I’d end up in the hospital for a week or so. Now if I get the flu, I stay at home and take care of myself. I spent six weeks in the hospital as a sixth grader while our doctor worked at stabilizing my blood sugars. I was previously described as a brittle diabetic, and the blood sugar swings that go with that diagnosis are with me to this day.
Adolescence was a major challenge, and a time when I put on a lot of additional weight. My body had quit growing, but I continued to feed it as though I still were. College was my first time of being away from home for any length of time, and it necessitated a lot of quick learning. The importance of sharing my condition with those around me was reinforced. For example, when I didn’t show up for class one day, my instructor called the “dorm mother,” who checked on me and helped me get treatment for a serious reaction. If I had not shared information about my disease, I might have suffered severe damage from lack of treatment.
Except for one year of living with my sister after she graduated from college, I lived on my own from the time I graduated from college at 20 until I got married at age 47 to a man with custody of his four birth children. In those years of living alone, I learned how to handle both my food and my insulin needs. Some of that learning included times when I voiced resentment about being diabetic and chose to eat what I wanted, when I wanted it, while attempting to adjust my insulin dosages to my desires for food.
Workshop Made a Great Difference
Over the years I’ve had some seriously frightening insulin reactions where I was unconscious and convulsing, but not many and they have always occurred around members of my birth family, who have learned a lot over the years about how to help me when I was in no condition to take care of myself. These reactions led me to attend a weeklong diabetes workshop offered by Dr. Richard Guthrie in Wichita, Kansas, nearly 25 years ago. Much that I heard I’d already learned from living with the disease so long, but the information and the treatment plan that were new to me later made a huge difference in the way I have since lived my life and cared for my physical needs.
November 2007 marked 56 years of living with a chronic condition that is often crippling or fatal. Because it was true for that period of time, the doctors told my parents that I probably would lose my vision and would be lucky to live to the age of 18. From the time I was old enough to understand, medical personnel have preached to me about the importance of taking good care of myself and the possibility of complications arising from poorly controlled diabetes.
I was not always a willing listener. But over the years I have learned to be more self-disciplined largely due to my spiritual growth and a desire to avoid complications of diabetes as long as possible. I’ve also managed two trips to Europe and two trips to Hawaii without incident, and I’ve taught special education for 34 years–demanding but rewarding work.
My control of my diabetes has never been perfect, and I doubt if it ever will be. The only major complication I’ve dealt with so far is a microscopic heart attack, followed three years later by quadruple bypass open-heart surgery. A minor complication is having been diagnosed with cataracts on both eyes, which were removed more than 10 years ago, followed by laser surgery on each eye. Another blessing I thoroughly enjoy is that I currently have 20/15 vision while wearing prescription lenses.
So Many Good Reasons for Living
I consider the present length of my life and my general state of health to be gifts from God. But He also makes me aware that my attitudes about self-discipline (very important for many reasons) and giving my best effort without berating myself when what I try doesn’t work are also important factors in my good health.
Give yourself reasons to live a long, healthy life – mine center on my relationships with God, husband, children, sister, dad, other family members and friends – and choose to avoid complications by (1) eating in ways that aid blood sugar control, (2) exercising mind and body, and (3) taking your medicines as directed. Don’t live in fear. Diabetes requires serious respect and serious effort, but it doesn’t have to be a quick death sentence. Don’t give up on yourself – enjoy life to the best of your ability. I am saddened and horrified that I hear of so few diabetics who have lived as long and healthy a life as I have, and I want to say to all who read my letter that life with diabetes can be good. Mine is!
LuAnn’s Secrets to Living Well With Diabetes
1. Focus on your relationships with God, family and friends to give yourself reasons to live.
2. Control your blood sugar by what you eat, get mental and physical exercise, and take your medicines.
3. Do not live in fear