I LEARNED TO LIVE WITH DIABETES
At first her trials and errors made her life a daily torture. She lied to get her first job and feared she would never marry. Once, screaming in a theatre, she thought she’d gone mad. Now, like thousands, she thanks modern insulin treatment for "a regulated life, but a good life”
DURING the Christmas rush of 1938, when I was 18 years old, I was clerking in a store on Toronto’s Bloor Street. A woman customer asked about some goods and I said we didn’t have them.
“But how do you know? You haven’t looked.” “1 handle this stock and I know we haven’t,” I said.
“Is that what they call service here?” she shouted indignantly. “I’ll see that your manager hears about this.”
I screamed: “I don’t care! I don’t care! I’m going crazy!” And I slumped to the floor.
I wasn’t going crazy—my trouble was diabetes. Because I was not experienced with the disease I often had what is known as insulin shock. At the moment I was experiencing the worst shock I have known in 13 years as a diabetic.
They thought I had fainted so they carried me
upstairs to a couch and telephoned my mother. She telephoned my doctor and he sent another doctor who was closer to the store. My mother and father came too.
I was semiconscious. I remember being forced to drink corn syrup and hot water and I began to come around. Then I saw that strange doctor. 1 was terrified.
I jumped off the couch and ran downstairs to the street. I dashed across Bloor Street, ignoring blasting horns, and plunged into a theatre. When they caught me I was in the front row of the balcony, screaming at the top of my voice.
It was horrible but I know now what caused it —a combination of the way I was taking my insulin and the fact 1 was delayed in getting out for lunch. The result was insulin shock and an emotional storm.
I have learned in 13 years that having diabetes
does not need to mean the end of happy living. I am married and I hold a good secretarial job. I dance and play much as normal people do. True, I weigh and measure my food carefully. I can’t take an extra piece of bread or pie no matter how I crave it. I must inject exact quantities of insulin into my flesh each day at specified times. I must guard against colds, infection and cuts. I must get normal rest.
I live a regulated life, but it’s a good life.
I was 16 and still going to school when my parents first decided something was wrong with me. I had a ravenous appetite. I would eat three times as much as my father. After eating I would drink six or seven glasses of water. Nothing seemed to quench my thirst. Then an hour later I would be starved for food.
Once I Dreaded Sympathy
It all started quite suddenly. In about a week my weight dropped from 115 pounds to 103. My mother could hardly wake me up for school in the morning, even though I went to bed at 8.30 in the evening. At school I was always sleepy and dopey.
We had always been a healthy family and we had no regular doctor. One night my parents sent me to see a doctor near our home. After examining me the doctor said I had better return the next night with my parents.
He told them: “Your daughter has diabetes so badly that I don’t know how she is alive.”
My parents couldn’t believe him at first. My father thought diabetes was an old person’s disease. My mother didn’t know anything about it. I guess I was too young to realize what it might mean, but I was frightened.
The doctor said he didn’t know how to treat the disease and recommended a certain specialist who took over my case.
I soon learned that my diabetes, like anyone else’s, was not caused by a germ, virus or injury. It was just that a gland called the pancreas had stopped normal production of natural insulinnecessary for the normal transfer of sugar into energy for the body. Without insulin the sugar merely accumulates in the body while muscle is broken down in a wasteful effort by the body to get energy. The diabetic therefore feels weak and loses weight.
The whole aim in diabetes treatment is to keep the blood sugar within normal limits. To do this an exact amount of food must be balanced by an exact amount of insulin. If too much insulin is given or not enough food eaten, then insulin shock may result—with unconsciousness. If not enough insulin is given or the diet is broken frequently, the blood sugar rises and after a few days of severe diabetic symptoms the victim goes into a coma. This requires careful treatment with large amounts of insulin or it may be fatal.
When I first went to the specialist my blood sugar count was 487 compared with a normal 80 to 120. A diabetic likes to see his blood test normal because it shows everything is working properly.
Insulin is obtained from the pancreas of animals slaughtered for meat. To balance the food diet, insulin must be injected in accurate amounts and at precise times, otherwise insulin shock may result. I didn’t start to take insulin until several months after I learned I had diabetes. If I could remember all that was tried in those first few months it would only confuse anyone not familiar with the treatment, but I know now that I owe my life to insulin.
I cried and was often hysterical when I first had to take insulin. My needles were far from perfect and jabbing them into my arm, leg or
stomach flesh twice a day was no fun. The insulin itself stung like a thousand bees and raised lumps. I had to keep finding new places to jab.
Modern insulin does not sting or raise lumps and the needles I use now are so fine they don’t even leave a mark.
I dreaded insulin and hated diet restrictions. I was afraid people would learn I was a diabetic. Above all, I dreaded sympathy. Now none of those things bothers me.
As a child at school I had to eat an apple at 10.30 every morning and at 3 in the afternoon to prevent insulin shock. I had some degree of shock every day and I grew to hate it. With modern insulin treatment I don’t have to eat between meals now.
When I went out I usually had to eat candy I always carried to prevent early signs of insulin shock. I still carry the candy but my diabetes is so well controlled that I rarely have the signs that require me to eat it.
I had to fight against sympathizing with myself. If I kept in mind that I was a diabetic and compared myself with people who do not live by rigid rules —that would mean worry. Worry and anger are like poisons to a diabetic. Strong emotions upset the actions of glands already disrupted by the disease. So I tried to follow the rules set for me and keep my secretand not worry.
I take two kinds of insulin. One, Insulin Toronto, acts within a few hours. The other, Protamine Zinc, has a delayed action. Each must be accurately measured in its own special syringe. Before I learned better ways I used to take my full day’s quota of both about 20 to 30 minutes before breakfast each morning.
The Insulin Toronto was supposed to look after sugar in my noon lunch and evening dinner. The Protamine Zinc would become effective for a night lunch and breakfast the next morning. The trouble was that I could never be sure how fast the Insulin Toronto would take effect. That day in the store it started before I could get lunch.
Sometimes insulin shock would strike without warning. Once I was looking in a store window on Yonge Street when suddenly I fell in a heap. I was carried into the store. Fortunately one of the clerks had a diabetic sister. She thought she recognized my symptoms, so she sent someone for orange juice and poured it into me. She may have saved my life.
A Million Unsuspecting Diabetics
I no longer fear that sort of accident. Present methods make it easier to prevent them. For one thing I now take only half of my allotment of Insulin Toronto in the morning. I take the other half just before dinner. Even when I do not go home for dinner I can always find a place sufficiently private to take my evening shot. I have a special syringe which carries easily in my purse.
My freedom to travel around has been aided also by a compact tester which enables me to test my sugar content at any time. It quickly tells me if any feeling of shock is caused by too much insulin or sugar, or if it is just a weak spell from some other cause.
Mental attitude was probably the most difficult and the most important thing I had to correct. I was afraid to let anyone know that I was diabetic. Do you think I would tell my employer and have him watch me for every little letdown that would not be noticed in an ordinary person? I lied to get my first job. I had a medical examination and I passed it 100%! When I told my doctor he laughed.
But it’s different now. Employers have learned
that diabetics often are more reliable than so-called normal people. We know we have a handicap and are more determined to give service. We know a cold can be serious, so we take every precaution not to catch cold. We know that lack of rest makes anyone more liable to physical disorders, so we make sure of getting proper rest. I sleep about eight hours a night. Alcohol in any form is not recommended for us, so we always keep fresh for the job.
One thing a diabetic needs with a job is a place to eat lunch. Restaurants are out as a regular thing. It is almost impossible to judge the starch and sugar content of restaurant food. I carry a measured lunch from home. A diabetic needs a place equipped with a grill and other conveniences such as our office and many others have.
Diet is extremely important to a diabetic. I have read that there are probably a million unknown diabetics on this continent and if they could be found and treated quickly most of them might never require more than minor dietary regulation.
Those who do take insulin vary in the amount and timing of it, and in diet. But each must stick to a prescribed dose of insulin and a set number of calories per day. Some think they can take an extra shot of insulin to make up for an indiscreet piece of pie. My doctor says (hey can die that way and I believe him.
Don’t think that we’re starved. We are allowed a variety of food in nourishing quantities. Time has taught me to judge foods accurately. I don’t have to carry scales now when 1 go out. I have learned to select, from
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I Learned to Live With Diabetes
Continued from page 21
available foods without danger of upsetting my balance. If I’m going out where food is to be served I allow for it by leaving so many units out of my regular meal.
Years ago it was not so simple. If I admitted my trouble it would cause embarrassing concern. If I tried to order in restaurants waitresses would look at me as if I were some kind of a freak.
Now people are not shocked when I tell them I am diabetic. Waitresses constantly amaze me with their understanding. I may say I want lean meat with no gravy and no potatoes. The waitress will say: “Ob sure, I know. I have a friend who’s diabetic. I’ll get you a different vegetable if you wish.”
If I were visiting your home I think you would please me most by serving whatever you usually serve and letting me select my food. You might tell me before dinner what you were having and let me tell you to leave potatoes and gravy off my plate and cream sauce off my vegetable.
The cost is high for diabetics. I pay about $1 a week for insulin and antiseptics. Sugarless jam costs 85c for 12 ounces. A package of diabeticchewing gum, same size as the usual five-slab package, costs 18c. A diabetic chocolate bar, the usual lj^-ounce size, costs 45c compared with 10c or less that normal people kick about. Visits to the doctor should be about once a month and each adds to the cost. All in all, I think I might operate a car for what I pay because I’m diabetic.
Boys Were Like Fudge Sundaes
In Toronto there’s a special store for diabetics—called Diabetic Foods and Supplies of Canada. The woman who runs it also is solving a personal problem. She learned five or six years ago that her young daughter had diabetes. She found difficulty getting special things for her daughter, so she opened the store. She sells special foods, scales, needles, syringes.
Income tax makes no allowance for insulin costs, which is hard to understand. The tax form states that you may claim the cost of an artificial limb, a spinal brace, a brace for a limb, a hearing aid or a wheel chair, but as a diabetic I’m not allowed any deduction for the cost of insulin which I must have to live.
Romance? The road that’s never smooth has a few extra bumps for a diabetic.
I was always afraid boys would find out that I was diabetic. It was embarrassing to be with a boy on a dance floor or in a movie and feel insulin shock coming on—and realize I had forgotten to bring my candy. I’d have to rush away to get fruit juice or candy, and leave the boy wondering what was the matter. If he did find out he’d get flustered and sympathetic. It was obvious he felt he had an invalid on his hands.
I went with one boy for several months. We both got rather serious. Then one evening he saw me put saccharine in my coffee. When I saw his stunned expression I knew that he knew. The air seemed to freeze. He took me home—and never did return.
So boys became something like fudge sundaes—pleasant but dangerous and never to be encouraged.
In spite of my shell, I met another boy. Gordon asked me to dance one night at a party. He asked me if I
would go out with him. I tried to be gracious but 1 had to refuse.
Finally I did go out with him and we had a happy evening—too happy to be repeated. We were in front of my home and he was asking for another date. I took a deep breath and said, “I like you, Gordon. But there’s something you should know. Fm a diabetic.”
He refused to take me seriously. I said: ‘Tm not joking. Don’t you know about diabetes?”
“Not a thing. But I’ll listen. You can tell me about it Saturday night.”
“No,” I said, “I have to tell you now. Diabetes is a disease. It is not contagious, but I am likely to have it all my life. It means I can eat only certain things in strictly weighed and measured amounts. I have to have special expensive foods. My doctor bills are costly.”
“I guess I’m glad you told me,” Gordon said. “And now, you will come out with me Saturday night, won’t you?”
I couldn’t force myself to talk to him about diabetes any more. But what was bound to happen sooner or later did happen.
We were out together one evening when things suddenly started to jump before my eyes. I felt my heart speed up. I was breaking into a sweat and getting dizzy. I had nothing with me to check the insulin shock.
I remember Gordon calling a taxi and rushing me home. He had to lift me from the cab, and I staggered and weaved toward the door. A woman on the street said, “Isn’t that disgraceful. A young woman like that drunk!”
I passed out then. When I came to he was pouring fruit juice between my lips. When I could speak I asked: “How did you know what to do?”
“Books,” he said. “I’ve been reading books. I’ve been talking to your doctor too. And I hope you will marry me soon.”
I have been very happy as Mrs. Gordon Burrell for more than seven years now. We both hold jobs. We take much pride in our home, and share the housework. I have held two important secretarial jobs in advertising agencies. For some time I have been secretary to the advertising manager of a large textile firm. I attend night school twice a week, learning dressmaking.
I wouldn’t take a long trip without having a bag of fruit with me; but with modern treatment and equipment I can go anywhere alone any time. Even Gordon doesn’t worry any more about me being out alone.
I was recently offered life insurance by two companies.
I would like to be cured, of course. But I wonder sometimes if diabetes hasn’t brought me more good than it has taken away. It made me learn self-control. And when you get to know people you don’t find many who haven’t some dominant trouble. I’m not sure that I’d want to trade places with them. ★
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