Half His Life

Mr. Neideffer, my Algebra II teacher, tapped his knuckles loudly on the board. He looked at me expectantly, prompting me with more loud taps against the blackboard, “Well, Rhonda, what’s the answer?”

Rhonda is my mom’s name, and some 25 years ago, Mr. Neideffer had my mother as a student in Algebra II. He called me Rhonda so often that I eventually stopped correcting him and just answered to my mother’s name.

On this day, we were studying direct and inverse proportions, and while I didn’t know the answer to his question, the irony of the lesson was not lost on me. Instead of focusing on Mr. Neideffer’s question, I thought about the age difference between my mother and me. When I turned 25, my mom would be 50, and I would have been alive half as long as she had been. When I turned 50, my mom would be 75, and I would have been alive three-fourths of the time as she had been. We would always be 25 years apart, but as we got older (an increase) the difference between how long we’d lived on the earth would decrease.

In the diabetes community, people often celebrate their diaversary (diagnosis + anniversary). While we talk about it, we don’t celebrate it yet, as we’re waiting to see how Henry wants to mark this day.

Since the invention of insulin, every diaversay is no doubt a marvel; however, I can’t help but feel somewhat sad because it marks another year of living with a chronic disease, which is hard work that we do everyday. Yet, another date makes me sadder: December 15, 2016.

This day marks the midpoint, where Henry’s lived as many days with diabetes as without. Everyday after December 15th is an inverse proportion: the amount of time he didn’t have diabetes decreases compared to the time he will have it.

Not uncommonly, someone will tell me that we’re lucky Henry got type 1 diabetes so young because he won’t know a different life. While I want to believe this, I can’t. I think of the greater proportion of time his blood vessels will be exposed to high blood sugars, the greater likelihood of complications. If I got diabetes right now, I’d be in my 70s before I’d have lived half my life with T1D. Henry turned 6 this year.

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When I become too forlorn about the burden of type 1, and what that means for my son, I remind myself that the miracle is he turned 6—that 96 years ago, before insulin, people with type 1 could expect to live 2-3 years after diagnosis. The miracle is everyday after January 11, 1922 when insulin was first delivered to a person with T1D, and that miracle includes today and the one after.

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Back to School Night with Type 1 Diabetes

My son with type 1 diabetes starts Kindergarten day after tomorrow. He’s excited, and we’re excited. We anticipate a safe environment in which he’ll learn, grow, and be healthy. We’ve met and planned with the school, but just hours ago, on the walk home from back to school night, tiny cyclones of fear, worry, and jealously snaked inside me.

Back to school night with type 1 diabetes means a pile of glucose tabs, glucagon kits, test strips, extra insets, a ketone serum meter, airheads for the really low lows, spreadsheets of instructions, snacks with carbs, snacks without carbs, lancets, a back-up meter, and extra adhesive have been queued in your dinning room for a week.

Back to school night with type 1 diabetes means you walk your son to all the bathrooms closest to his classroom. You point out the water fountains along the way.

Back to school night with type 1 diabetes is taking four times as long to drop off materials as other families because you have so many more items. In fact, when you’re dropping off supplies and signing form after form in the nurse’s office, the courteous mother behind you tells the staff that she’ll be back tomorrow, meaning when they’re less busy. It’s realizing, in that moment, despite your two big bags of supplies, that you forgot the snacks with carbs, so you’ll be back tomorrow as well.

Back to school night with type 1 diabetes is walking the route between the nurse’s office and his classroom several times, just to make sure he doesn’t get lost. You realize it’s a trip he’ll make several times a day, and he’ll know it like the back of his hand in a week.

Back to school night with type 1 diabetes is rushing from work to the pharmacy so you can get the glucagon kits for school, and as you walk past the cashier to the pharmacy counter, you see a mother wave a purple glittery pencil box before she pays for it. You overhear her say to the cashier, “It’s back to school night tonight, and this is the last thing we need. We almost forgot about it.” A needle of jealousy pierces you, and you wish back to school night was just about pencil boxes and markers, a blithe almost forgetting of things. But then you remember to be kind, because everyone is fighting great invisible battles. Surely living with type 1 has taught you that.

Back to school night with type 1 diabetes means looking at all the other boys and girls that your son will most likely go to school with for the next thirteen years and hoping that they will be compassionate and understanding. But you’ve been a kid on a playground and in a lunchroom. You know kids aren’t empathetic and kind all the time.

Back to school night with type 1 diabetes is hoping your non-T1D kid doesn’t feel minimalized as she waits for you to finish something diabetes related for the fourth or fifth time that day. She’d like to see her classroom too, and asks if there’s still time to visit her teacher.

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Back to school night with diabetes is forcing yourself to breathe as you walk behind this guy who is, and will, shoulder so much. You tell yourself you’re just sending your kid off to Kindergarten, that lucky parents whose kids were born after the discovery of insulin 95 years ago, and kids whose T1D is caught in enough time, get to do that— send their kids off to Kindergarten.

Names Are Hard

The ADA’s 2016 Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes recently shifted its language to match the ADA’s position that diabetes does not define people, “the word ‘diabetic’ will no longer be used when referring to individuals with diabetes in the ‘Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes.’ The ADA will continue to use the term ‘diabetic’ as an adjective for complications related to diabetes (e.g., diabetic retinopathy) (54.)'” This means that “diabetes” is now used to refer to the person who has it, instead of “diabetic;” for example, “My sister has diabetes,” not, “my sister is a diabetic.”

The name shift seems simple, but it’s packed with emotions, implications, and for some, even anger. I wrote a piece, Diabetic v. Diabetes, shortly after the ADA published the 2016 Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes, which explained the name change. When I linked to the article on Semisweet’s Facebook page, within seconds, the first comment was, “This is stupid.” Beyond Type 1 featured the article, and it garnered some healthy debate on the Beyond Type 1 Facebook page as well.

Some people see diabetic v. diabetes as splitting hairs or unnecessary political correctness. When I encounter the people who prefer to be called “diabetic,” or at least voice a strong and angry opinion against those asking to be called, “person with diabetes,” I respect their right to be called “diabetic.” In general, it seems these people have lived with the disease for many years— years when the battle was greater because technology wasn’t as advanced and understanding was scarer. Usually, these people are adults; however, children are more sensitive to language, labels, and their implications. In fact, we’re all probably not too far removed from that hateful comment or name someone hurled at us on the playground.

I’m the parent of someone who has diabetes. I couldn’t protect my son from getting diabetes, but I can try to protect him from the implications of being called “a diabetic.” He’s not even in kindergarten yet, and already kids his age have told him he, “can’t eat a certain food because [he’s] diabetic.” He’s been told he can’t play a certain sport because he’s “diabetic.” A neighbor kid didn’t want him in her yard because he’s “diabetic.” He’s brought home treats, like half a muffin or cupcake, from school because he didn’t eat it when the other kids did. We don’t make certain foods off limits, but he’s heard kids his own age tell him what he can’t eat. I wonder what he’s thinking as he watches his classmates eat their treats. He can eat that cupcake or cookie because he has diabetes, but he’s inherited the stereotype that he can’t, because he’s “a diabetic.”

The governing associations like American Diabetes Association are changing their language, and I think this is because our perception and understanding of diabetes is changing. To be “a diabetic” was a certain death sentence 94 years ago. After insulin, to be “a diabetic” meant doctors predicted vastly shorter lifespans; fear and misunderstanding from teachers, relatives, and the larger medical community impacted people’s lives negatively. Women with T1D were told they could not and should not have children (case in point, Steel Magnolias).

In this era of better treatment, people with diabetes can live normal lifespans with fewer complications. As more and more people live longer and better with T1D, we’re starting to understand that living with a chronic disease or condition, like diabetes, has impacts on our emotional health, romantic relationships, and mental health. Having diabetes, means we can talk about this, and if we talk about being “diabetic” versus living with diabetes, there’s a simple paradigm shift at work: a limited life vs. a limitless life.

In images, the paradigm shift looks like this.

Below is the picture of a child who’s just been given a shot of insulin for the first time in 1922, and he’s starting to wake up from DKA. He was in a Canadian hospital with a ward for diabetic children. Just weeks before, his parents sat at his literal death bed.

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photo source: Library and Archives Canada

He’s a picture of 4 time Olympian, Kris Freeman. He happens to have Type 1. In the photo, he’s training for another race and is wearing an insulin pump, Omnipod, on his arm.

In both pictures, we can see the life that insulin makes possible, and what’s harder to discern, but still visible, are the implications of being diabetic versus having diabetes.

Being diabetic once meant limitations, and yes, having diabetes requires my son to make sacrifices and take extra steps, but being a person with diabetes puts the focus on personhood. Thankfully, we’re living in an age when having diabetes means it’s a conversation about what we can do instead of what we can’t, and that’s ultimately the difference between diabetes and diabetic.

 

Diabetes & Anniversaries

On January 11th, two seemingly unrelated images from the past crossed my Facebook newsfeed. The initial image, from JDRF Canada, celebrated the first injection of insulin given to a human 94 years ago on January 11, 1922. The patient was Leonard Thompson, a 14 year-old boy in a diabetic coma, what was then the end stage of type 1 diabetes. Within hours Thompson began to recover, and the discovery of insulin was immediately heralded as one of the greatest accomplishments of modern medicine. In fact, the The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Banting and Macleod in 1923.

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I’m fascinated with the medial history that surrounds T1D— both in the disease’s enigmatic nature as well as the scientists, doctors, and patients that seek to end T1D.

The second picture that crossed my newsfeed is from January 11, 2014. As a family, we were looking forward to seeing our first movie in the theatre and taking a walk downtown afterword. The songs and characters from Frozen swirled on the screen, and my daughter sat on the literal edge of her seat, holding my hand and inhaling with delight. Henry collapsed into his papa’s lap, and barely moved during the show. Since this was his first time in a theatre, I thought that maybe the light and sound were disorientating to him. I tried to make light of his grumpiness, so I took a picture of him.

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January 11th, watching Frozen;   diagnosed with T1D on March 6th

Now when I look at the picture, I see his flushed cheeks and puffy eyes, which happen when he’s had a persistent high blood sugar. The small Sprite in the cup-holder (probably the second or third soft drink he’d ever had), haunts me, and  I understand why he was lethargic during the movie and walk.

Around the time of the photo, the only symptoms he showed were irritability and lethargy. About three weeks later, my mother visited and commented on the heaviness of Henry’s morning diaper. I said, “I think he might have diabetes.”

When I said that, I didn’t really think Henry had diabetes, but I must have said it to voice an irrational fear, so the absurdity of the worry would become a talisman against its reality, like knocking on wood.

Parents of young children with type 1 diabetes often talk about the last picture of their child before diagnosis, noting the bittersweet moment. Usually, the photo shows some evidence of weight loss or lethargy, so parents beat themselves up for not knowing what was going on. On the other hand, there’s great liberty, because they didn’t know what they didn’t know— the ceaseless, worrisome nature of type 1 diabetes— a paradox  photo of a really sick kid in a last moment of joyful blindness.

When both these pictures crossed my newsfeed on January 11th, my first thought was thankfulness. How little time has actually passed between these two moments, but how many lives. Henry’s great grandfathers were born before the invention of insulin, and it’s only because of insulin that Henry’s alive.

In the early days after a T1D diagnosis, there’s shock and sadness, but there’s also an awareness of the great heritage of suffering and success that comes with T1D. I hope we’re at a moment in T1D history when the burden of care improves and the instance when some unlikely, scrappy doctors and scientists stumble onto the next breakthrough.

 

Diabetes, from Clinical to Personal

In this guest post, Rhonda Morgan, a registered nurse, describes how type 1 patients in diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) and severe hypoglycemia were treated in the emergency department in the 1970s and 1980s. Rhonda’s understanding of type 1 diabetes changed in 2014, when the clinical became personal.

I began my career as a registered nurse in 1974, the summer I graduated college and passed my board exams. This was one of the sundry times there was a nursing shortage, so I started to work as a new graduate in a very busy emergency department (ED) of a 500+ bed hospital. It was grand. The ED affords ample opportunity to see just about everything. And we saw a lot of patients with diabetes in those days, primarily adults in DKA. Another frequently seen diabetic-related emergency was hypoglycemia (“insulin shock,” as it was known then), and these patients all too often presented to the ED, unconscious, with seizures, and with a very low blood glucose. Many doses of D50 (dextrose 50%) were administered empirically to known patients with T1D presenting with these symptoms. Likely no state of unconsciousness is as easily and instantly reversed. Occasionally, a child would present to the ED and be diagnosed with type 1, but children were always admitted to pediatrics, and never hung around in the ED for very long.

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Rhonda Morgan, RN in the ED, 1981, preparing an IV

The adult type 1 patient in DKA was one of my favorite patients to manage and care for in the ED, because the course was so dynamic, and one could see the favorable results of treatment over a short period of time. One of the really great ED physicians, with whom I worked for many years, would elect to keep these patients in the ED and treat them, as opposed to admitting them to the hospital, if they did not have insurance. This was much more financially feasible for the patient and family, plus the patient had constant care.

In those days, we had no bedside (point of care) blood glucose testing. We tested for glucose in the urine of our patients with diabetes using clinitest tablets. The clinitest method involved shaking a tablet out of the bottle into the test tube (because you could not touch the tablet with your fingers), adding 6 drops of urine and 10 drops of sterile water and waiting for the chemical reaction to occur. The contents of the test tube would fizz and generate heat, and then change color. After 30 seconds, one would compare the color of the liquid in the test tube to a color chart to determine the corresponding blood glucose. The test was very imprecise, but none the less we used this method of testing for glucose, along with blood tests that were sent to the lab, and took an hour or more to get the results.

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A few years later, test strips were available, but again, this method tested for glucose in urine and was not a direct or current measurement of blood glucose. DNA recombinant (Humalog/Novalog) insulins and basal insulins were not yet developed. We had regular insulin, NPH, Lente insulin, and ultra-Lente, the last two being longer-acting insulins. All were bovine origin.

Later in my career, I worked in critical care as a clinical specialist and helped institute computerized, and then later, web-based algorithms to manage hyperglycemia of critical illness, prevalent in both diabetic and non-diabetic patients in the ICU.

So, I have been around a lot of folks with diabetes. I have managed treatment and cared for of a lot of folks with diabetes in DKA, and in critical illness situations. However, I knew nothing about how to manage and oversee the maintenance of T1D until my grandson, Henry, was diagnosed with T1D at the age of 3.

Then, I saw the “other side” of diabetes— the personal side, not the clinical rescue, critical, immediate treatment regimen, but the everyday, every night, day-in, day-out routines that must be undertaken to keep him safe in the immediate, and to offer the best odds of avoiding the long term complications of diabetes. This side of diabetes management is just as critical as the side of diabetes care with which I was so familiar.

Our entire family had a learning curve that was fast paced. It was not easy, and it is not for the short term. It is for life. Henry was started on multiple daily injections at diagnosis in March 2014. Needless to say, this approach was filled with anxiety and unpleasantness for all. Thanks to his smart and advocating parents, he got his insulin pump and continuous glucose monitor in late May, just shy of 3 months into his life with diabetes. The pump ushered in a new learning curve, and the continuous glucose monitor gave us an eye on previously unseen data.

How I wish Henry did not have to live his life with diabetes, but he does.

I think back to 1974 and putting those 6 drops of urine in the test tube and feeling the warmth of the chemical reaction in my hand, and I contrast that to a direct blood glucose value we get multiple times daily in just seconds, CGM data transmitted over an iphone around the world, and insulin delivered with a pump, and I am confident Henry can have a happy, healthy productive life.

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Henry and his Nonna in 2014

Richard’s Diagnosis Story

Diagnosis stories are powerful teaching tools that help people learn to recognize the symptoms of type 1 diabetes. For the person diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, a diagnosis is the day his or her life changes and goes forward. Semisweet is sharing “Richard’s Diagnosis Story” in his own words. Richard has been living with type 1 diabetes for over 70 years. In 2006 he joined the diabetes online community, where people were fascinated to hear Richard’s story of living with T1D in the 1940s and beyond. In 2010, Richard published his autobiography, “Beating The Odds: 64 Years Of Diabetes Health.”

Richard, diagnosed at age 6, September 1945

I was born in 1939, in Roanoke, VA, and I had several illnesses before my fifth birthday: three different kinds of measles and my tonsils removed. When I was five I had chicken pox and mumps, and while recovering I began showing the classic symptoms of diabetes— excessive peeing and drinking so much water. My parents took me to three different doctors, but they did not recognize my symptoms, so there was no diagnosis. I lost my appetite, and refused to eat. I just wanted to drink.

One doctor prescribed a tonic that was supposed to restore my appetite. I still remember the bad taste and tall glass bottle filled with dark brown liquid. It was like the snake oil medicine that we have read about from the past. The tonic did not help at all. It probably made my condition worse because it contained sugar. By the time we saw a fourth doctor I was very weak, and had lost a lot of weight. My ribs were very noticeable when my shirt was removed. The fourth doctor recognized my symptoms, and took a blood sample in his office. The sample was sent to a lab, and we waited a few days before returning to his office for the results.

His office was on the second floor of a building on Main Street in Salem, VA, and I struggled to slowly walk up the long flight of stairs. My father was carrying my three year old sister, but I was too big to be carried. In the doctor’s office, my mother and I sat in chairs while my father stood behind us, still holding my sister. I do not remember the doctor’s face, or his words, but I’ve never forgotten my mother’s pale and frightened face. In September 1945, a few days after my sixth birthday, we were told that I had sugar diabetes. I was hospitalized the next day, and don’t remember much about the stay, except for the injections and the blood that was collected. Insulin, taken from pigs or cows caused me to gradually regain my appetite, and I stopped losing weight. By the time I was home, I looked like a human being again, and my strength was very much improved.

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Richard and his family a few months after his diagnosis

While in the hospital, I was treated by Dr. Davis and he became the doctor for my whole family. I saw him every six months, and he took blood samples, testing them in his office lab while I waited. My blood sugar was always high, but I don’t recall him ever mentioning numbers. We were not concerned though because we did not know about the complications that might occur with my eyes, kidneys, and other body parts. One shot per day, one urine test, large portions of food, and no worries. Ignorance was bliss.

There were no meters for testing blood sugar at home until the 1980s, almost forty years after my diagnosis. We tested my urine at home, every morning, but the procedure for doing that was very awkward. The first thing I did each morning was to pee in a cup. Some Benedict’s solution was placed in a large test tube, and several drops of urine were added. The test tube was placed upright in a container of water on our stove. When the water had boiled a while, the test tube was removed, and the color of the solution was observed. The original color of the Benedict’s solution was blue. If the solution containing the urine was blue, after boiling, then there was no sugar present in the urine. If sugar was present in my urine, then there would be colors: green, yellow, orange, brick red, or brown. Green showed a low amount of sugar, brown showed very high sugar.

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testing blood sugar with Benedict’s solution

It was nice that there was only one injection each day before breakfast, but there were no fast and slow acting insulins, so control of my blood sugar levels was not good at all. The animal insulin was a 24 hour insulin, so the morning urine test result determined the dosage, but urine tests do not approximate blood sugar well. The glass syringe and metal needles were kept in alcohol, and sterilized with boiling water on the stove once each week. We had our own well, and the water contained limestone deposits. After boiling, there was a white film on the needles and syringe, so we had to use a whetstone to remove the deposits. The limestone frequently clogged the insides of the needles, so we had to push a small wire through the needles to unclog them. If the deposit was not removed it was difficult to push the needle into my skin. The needles were almost three quarters of an inch in length. I was supposed to push the needle into the muscle on top of my legs, or on my arms. My father gave me my injections until I was ten.

During the night I would sometimes have hypos. Some of those hypos became seizures. I would thrash around during my sleep, my teeth clinched, my muscles would become drawn, and I was almost unconscious. Mother poured small amounts of the sugar water they kept nearby on my lips, until I had enough in my mouth to partially awaken me. Then I drank the liquid more freely. I was always drenched with sweat, and very weak after a seizure. My body was sore the next day and the sugar water caused my urine test to show high the next morning. I continued to have seizures for many years, but they occurred less frequently when I was older. There was never any effort made to call an ambulance. Perhaps it was because the nearest hospital was at least 10-15 miles from our house, and I doubt that the paramedics in the ambulance had glucagon injections. Home care was probably the best solution. I think my mother saved my life many times during the years I lived at home.

Dr. Davis told us that I should not eat sugar, but no other instructions about an appropriate diet were given, so we didn’t know about carbohydrates. We lived on our little ten acre farm, and we had cows, chickens, pigs, and a horse. There was a very big garden, and an orchard. We bought very little food at the grocery store, so processed food was rarely part of my diet. Our own milk, eggs, vegetables, and fruit were readily available. We had meat from the chickens and pigs. Mother canned food each summer and fall. I helped my father with the farm work, and I was very hungry, so I ate big portions at every meal. I ate all the same food that my parents and sister ate, except items containing sugar. Mother used saccharin to sweeten the pies, cookies and cakes that she made for me. I ate lots of bread, potatoes, and other things that were not good for me, but we thought all foods were okay, if they did not contain sugar.

My parents did the best they could for me during my childhood and Dr. Davis gave no instructions that helped. We did not know there could be potential problems, and I led a rather normal day to day existence. There were no health problems with my diabetes throughout my childhood, despite my very irregular blood sugars. I have often wondered why I did not have DKA back then. Was something protecting me? All the fast acting carbs I ate each day (without correction boluses like I take now) must have kept my blood sugar very high. I’m sure my parents were devastated by my diabetes, and not knowing how to care for me. My parents raised me in much the same way that they were raised in their mountain homes. They were raised on farms, and they loved that kind of living.

When I talk to parents of T1D children diagnosed today, I advise them to join online diabetes support groups for parents. Children with Diabetes, created by Jeffrey Hitchcock, and the many parents’ support groups on Facebook are very good sources of advice and information for parents. Getting support from experienced parents can help so much! There are books that are available, but I think the online community is best. Having T1D children meet other children in their communities is a very good idea. Diabetes camps in the summertime are an excellent idea. Attending the Friends For Life conference in Orlando, FL is another source that I have seen work so well with children who are type 1.

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Richard at 76, having lived with T1D for 70 years

If you’d like learn more about Richard’s life with type 1 diabetes, then check out this video interview where Richard shares his experiences with Daniele Hargenrader. Richard was also interviewed about living with T1D for over 7 decades on Diabetes Mine. Richard will also be a speaker at the 2016 FFL conference in Orlando, FL. You can follow Richard on Twitter @Richardvau157.

Charitable Fighting

On episode 41 of the Juicebox Podcast, host, Scott Benner talks with the JDRF’s Director of Discovery Research, Albert Hwa, about some of the current and promising research the JDRF is doing. During the interview Benner posses an almost rhetorical question, “What’s the last thing we cured as a society? Is it polio?”

This question hit me hard, maybe because I was pulling into the drugstore parking lot to get yet another month’s supply of insulin and test strips. We’ve never told our son that his diabetes will be cured. I don’t count on type 1 diabetes being cured in my lifetime, or his. I hope it will, and it’s wonderful to hope and support the goal of curing diabetes, but I think it’s dangerous to promise a young child with diabetes that his or her disease will be cured.

If Henry grows up believing that his disease will be cured in five or twenty years and it isn’t, how will this affect his feelings toward the organizations, scientists, and doctors who are working on a cure? I’ve heard so many people and families affected by T1D talk about turning away from charities, organizations, and even their own self-care, because at diagnosis, medical professionals and organizations said a cure was on the horizon in X years. And after X years arrived, there’s no cure.

When Henry asks if he will have his diabetes forever, we tell him yes. In general, when “yes” is a harder answer than “no,” the question is serious. We tell Henry that he’ll have his diabetes forever, but that it will get easier to have T1D because doctors and scientists are working really hard on ways to make diabetes hurt less and be easier to take care of.

If you follow diabetes research, you’re well aware that people have strong opinions about the JDRF, The Faustman Lab, and other organizations. The stakes are high and charitable giving is limited, so it’s natural that opinions butt heads. Shorty after our son’s diagnosis, I was on the phone with our local chapter of the JDRF. I’ve read about the promising trials going on at the Faustman Lab, and I was in the room when Ed Damiano released the iLet this summer. Some people gasped, and others who’d been living with diabetes for decades began to cry, and in my own anticipation for Henry to have a better life, it struck me that this is one of the many ways hope arrives.

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Photo Credit: Jeff  Hitchcock, Friends for Life

When Banting first conceived of insulin, it’s rumored he was in a semi-intoxicated state, preparing for a lecture on metabolism in the wee hours of the morning, while in a less than prestigious lecturer position. He was largely working in isolation without much support. Lightening may strike twice, but I’m not counting on the next diabetes breakthrough to emerge from isolation and without support.

I don’t know if the next advancement in diabetes care will be islet transfers, beta cell encapsulation, or related to immunotherapy. I do know that it’s important that my son sees us supporting the people who work everyday to make his life easier.


This week, Semisweet donated money to the Bionic Pancreas, the Faustman Lab, and started Team Henry for our local JDRF One Walk. We added a Donate page to provide more information about diabetes research. Please consider joining us in one of the causes.

Hello, We’ll Talk About Diabetes

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).

L: a child with diabetes on the starvation diet, R: same child after treatment with insulin (photo credit: trumanlibrary.org)

left: a child with diabetes on the starvation diet right: same child after treatment with insulin (photo credit: trumanlibrary.org)

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.

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Wanda’s Diagnosis Story

Diagnosis stories are powerful teaching tools that help people learn to recognize the symptoms of type 1 diabetes. For the person diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, a diagnosis is the day his or her life changes and goes forward. Semisweet is sharing the diagnosis story of someone who’s lived with T1D for 53 years. Here’s Wanda’s Diagnosis Story in her own words.

Wanda, diagnosed at age 12, December 19, 1962

About two weeks before Christmas in 1962 I developed a tremendous thirst and along with it, numerous trips to the toilet to pee. This was not immediately noticeable to my mom, but after a week of this, I required a parental note so that I could be excused from my class to go the bathroom, which was an embarrassment for a twelve year old.

My mom’s initial thinking was that I had a bladder infection, so thankfully she set up an appointment with our family doctor for the following week. By the time of the appointment, I was drinking (and peeing) over 1 gallon of water, plus other fluids, each day. I had a huge appetite, but was listless and quickly losing weight, almost 20 pounds in 2 weeks. Our doctor did a quick urine test in his office and diagnosed me with type 1 diabetes, which was called Sugar Diabetes at the time. I was twelve years old and in Grade 7 when I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

I was admitted into the children’s ward of the local hospital and spent one month in the hospital. I remember being worried I would miss Christmas, but the doctor said I could go home for Christmas day if I returned in the evening, which is what we did. I was in hospital for about 4 weeks as I learned the complexities of diabetes care. They also figured out how much insulin I would require to manage each day. Glucose testing was mainly done with Eli Lilly urine testing strips, which certainly weren’t as accurate, but gave you idea if you were in trouble. There was no sliding scale, and pumps weren’t yet invented. I measured food in “exchanges” and ate the same amount every day, so 1 ounce of meat was 1 meat exchange a slice of bread was a bread exchange, etc.

Wanda 1 year after diagnosis

Wanda 1 year after diagnosis

The diabetic care back then was a bit of a nightmare, initially. I had a stainless steel needle that my mom sharpened on a matchbox (the gritty strike edge), and she then sterilized by boiling it in a strainer along with a glass syringe. She did this every night so I was ready for my single shot in the morning. I took snacks to school for mid-morning and mid-afternoon, as well as my carefully measured lunch. I was on the school track team and also played field hockey, so if I needed extra sugar, I drank some juice.

By the time I was 19 we had disposable syringes and needles available at the pharmacy, but with the appearance of recreational drugs on the scene, I would get a hard time when I purchased them, so I had to show them my medical card stating I was diabetic. I got my first home glucose-testing machine when I was in my thirties, and it was about the size of a paper back book, but still fit in my purse. It cost about $250 and was not covered by our medical plan at the time. Thankfully, managing diabetes has gotten easier.

There was NO history of type 1 diabetes in my family, so no one was on the lookout for it. The signs are great thirst and consumption of liquids, resulting in increased urination. Fast weight loss and lethargy come quickly afterwards. I lost weight two weeks after the symptoms appeared. A simple blood glucose test can diagnose diabetes.

Wanda on a Caribbean cruise, having lived with T1D for 51 years

Wanda on a Caribbean cruise, having lived with T1D for 51 years

Here I am­— 53 years (and still counting!) after diagnosis. I really have 2 jobs in life: one is regular life, school, employment and the other is managing my diabetes. It makes for a busy schedule, but I am still here, enjoying the results of good management and great medical care. I have travelled the world: Australia, England, much of Europe, Hawaii, the Bahamas and many of the U.S. States, without a single incident. May every newly diagnosed child take heart; there is a great life ahead. You just have to believe it and go for it. Diabetes doesn’t have to run you; YOU manage IT!