In 1919, eleven-year-old Elizabeth Hughes, daughter of Charles Evans Hughes,
Justice of the Supreme Court, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, a death sentence. At the time of her diagnosis, children with T1D survived an average of 11 months after diagnosis. The only “treatment” was the Allen diet, a slow starvation— eating about 400 calories a day from foods like “thrice boiled cabbage” (Total Dietary Regulation in the Treatment of Diabetes).
Fortunately, Elizabeth was among the first American patients to receive insulin in 1922. She grew up, married, had three children, and died at age 73. When her children were young, she never told them she had diabetes, not even after her oldest son witnessed her convulsions from a severe episode of hypoglycemia. In fact, it wasn’t until her children were grown that she took each child aside and told them privately that she had diabetes.
Her secrecy made sense. She’d been handed a death sentence at eleven. Even after the discovery of insulin, prognosis wasn’t good. Recently, The New York Times ran an opinion piece, “The End Isn’t Near,” by Dan Fleshler, someone who has been living with diabetes for 53 years. Fleshler was diagnosed at seven, and his doctors weren’t optimistic about his longevity, but he’s healthy and here, yet the looming predictions cut into the quality of his life.
A diagnosis of a disease or a condition creates a stigma, and there’s a deep drive to keep any stigma a secret. However, secrets around disease create misunderstanding, shame, and fear. If people with diabetes and their family members don’t talk about what it’s really like to live with diabetes, then it’s easy for misconceptions such as: “insulin is a cure” or diabetes is “easy” as long as the patient doesn’t eat sugar, to circulate.
It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I met who someone who was open about T1D. Amy regularly checked her blood sugar and bloused for food without any fanfare and answered all our questions, but I had no idea what it meant to have diabetes. In fact, we were hosting a party, and I made tea sweetened with honey just for Amy, because I knew honey was lower on the glycemic index. I’d thought to measure the honey and let her know how much I used, but I had no idea why it would have been better for Amy to drink something with an artificial sweetener in it, which she did.
A few years later, our son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and I knew we would educate ourselves to help Henry live his life in the best ways we could. However, I thought we’d hunker down and live life with diabetes with relative quietness. And we did for a while, but we started noticing things, like when Henry hears the case of his blood glucose meter being unzipped, he holds out his finger without looking up from his Legos or iPad. We started reading information such as, Type 1 diabetes is increasing by 3% annually and affecting a younger and younger population, with some diagnoses occurring before a first birthday. There’s no disease registry, so T1D can’t be studied in a truly systematic way. Some insurance companies deny coverage for life saving and extending equipment, such as pumps and CGMs, for infants and children. Some schools don’t allow students with T1D to use smart devices, such as an iPod, iPhone, or iPad to help manage blood sugars.
It took me about a year to move from being a parent of a person with diabetes to an advocate for diabetes awareness and research. In fact, I think many parents of children with disabilities, diagnoses, and conditions, to their surprise, define themselves as an advocate after the emergency settles into the daily.
So, for now, we’re speaking up, telling Henry’s story with the simple belief that story and science should work more closely together. This summer insulin turned 93 and Henry turned 5 in September. If we talk about diabetes enough, maybe one day we can talk about it less.