I have just injected myself for roughly the 30,000th time. It’s nearly lunchtime in the office, but no-one looked up from their work as I stuck the syringe into my belly. They’ve all seen me do it hundreds of time before.
I have been diabetic for over 30 years and, in order to survive, I have to inject myself with insulin before every meal. At first my workmates squirmed when I shot up in front of them, but now its just part of the daily routine. The editor is barking instructions to the journalists, the phones are ringing, the photographers are pretending to be busy, the sports guy is injecting himself.
Diabetes, unfortunately, will have an impact on everybody’s lives.
Within 20 years, the NHS will be spending £17 billion on diabetes care and management – almost 20 per cent of its budget. That is money that could be spent on cancer research, crucial heart screening, treatment and drugs that could keep patients alive.
For ‘type 1’ diabetics like me, the current diabetes endemic brings bad headlines and misconceptions. The number of people with diabetes has increased in the last six years by almost 40 per cent, and the majority of those cases are attributable to poor weight control, bad diet and a lack of exercise. This is the less serious ‘type 2’ strand of the condition and is managed simply by diet, weight loss and occasional insulin supplements.
For type 1 diabetics, like me, the condition is the result of a viral infection and there was nothing I could have done to avoid it. Indeed, I was just 18 months old when diagnosed. Recently, my healthy, active, three-year-old niece Aoife was also diagnosed and is just coming to terms with regular blood tests and four injections per day as she prepares to start nursery school in September.
When diabetes is reported in the news, it is almost always type 2 being referred to, and it is almost always accompanied by a photograph of an overweight person. But life with type 1 is very different. Everything we do, from having a cup of coffee in the morning, to walking to work, or worrying about exams or Antrim GAA, can impact on our blood sugars.
If your blood sugar falls too low you have a ‘hypo’ – a hypoglycemic episode – which can be very dangerous. These hypos result in a diabetic’s energy levels falling quickly. They become exhausted, very hungry, confused and lose the ability to think logically. Eventually, they will collapse, with sometimes very serious consequences. The thought of having a hypo while driving, for example, means I always have high sugar foods – such as Lucozade or glucose tablets – close at hand on long car journeys.
A healthy person will produce insulin naturally in order to balance their blood sugar levels. So, after a big feed or a night on the beer, for example, the body will produce the hormone insulin to keep blood sugars at a healthy level. Type 1 diabetics produce no insulin so it must be injected. Therefore, before every meal I must ‘shoot up’.
Exercise brings blood sugar levels plunging downwards and while a healthy person will recover with time, diabetics must take on appropriate levels of carbohydrates or sugars after a training session.
I test my blood about six times a day, and while I feel I’m a well-controlled patient, I still make small errors in judgement and end up having a hypo. I was training for a leg of the marathon this year, and on one occasion had a serious hypo overnight. I only came round after I was given a sugary drink. If I had been on my own, it could have been much more serious.
I was ‘lucky’ enough to be diagnosed when I was just a toddler. Like most diabetics pre-diagnosis, my blood sugars were extremely high and, in order to fight this, the body tries to flush the sugar out of the system by excessive urination. You grow extremely dehydrated, and my mother knew there was something seriously wrong with me when she looked out the window to see me drinking from a puddle.
Luckily, because I was so young, injecting and not eating sweets when I wanted was no big deal to me – it was just the way it was. But it can be frustrating always having to have insulin pens and blood testing equipment close at hand. Intense exercise is very difficult and unexpected changes in plans – such as simply being stuck in a traffic jam, or a match going to extra time – can really impact on your blood sugar management. It’s a constant process of testing and eating or injecting.
A recent revolution in diabetes management has been the insulin pump – which constantly monitors blood sugar levels and injects appropriate insulin doses when needed. However, there is a huge shortfall in funding for these expenses devices so, like the vast majority of the 15,000 type 1 diabetics in the North, I’ll plug on with the insulin injections and the blood tests. Diabetes is a serious condition, and long-term there are some serious side-effects. But with proper control and management there’s nothing stopping type 1 diabetics from living a full and active life.