Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Most Intense Journey of My Life

Diabetes is a lot like the weather. It’s not always going to be 75 and sunny regardless of how great the climate is, just like you won’t have perfect blood sugars all the time regardless of the quality of your overall control.  With the seemingly infinite number of things that can affect blood sugar, you are bound to have high and low readings occasionally but if I have learned anything from living with the disease for the past 11 years, it is to accept the highs and the lows but also look at them and try to diagnose why they occurred. Hopefully, through that diagnosis, I can prevent a similar situation from occurring again.

Diabetes is an autoimmune disorder where the body kills off the beta cells in the pancreas that produce an essential hormone called “insulin”. When we consume food our bodies digest and break down what we have eaten into forms of glucose that are then transported into the bloodstream. The proper amount of insulin is then released and it takes the sugar molecules from the blood and brings them to the individual cells of the body. This is what keeps all of our cells alive and gives us energy to complete daily tasks. A person, like myself, with diabetes does not produce any insulin, so we have to inject it manually and constantly monitor the sugar level in our blood to keep it in a certain range and calculate the proper dosage of insulin.

I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes just after my 11th birthday in January of 2001 and it was easily the scariest thing I have gone through in life. One day, around Thanksgiving, my mom went shopping at the local grocery store and came home with some grapes, various other snack foods, and whatever she happened to be cooking for dinner that night. As soon as she put the groceries on the counter I pulled out the bag of grapes and devoured the entire thing. She kept warning me not to spoil my dinner, but when it was ready 45mins later I ate my whole plate…then went back for seconds…and thirds. I probably would have gone back again, except we ran out of food. I was also drinking gallons of fluid every day, and by virtue, going to the bathroom constantly. I couldn’t even sit through a single one-hour class at school with out getting up to go to the bathroom. It was all very strange and out of character for me. I suppose it could have been attributed to the fact that I was about at that age when I was really going to start growing, except I went from weighing roughly 75lbs down to 60lbs in a matter of weeks. All of these symptoms really clued my parents in that something was seriously wrong so they decided to take me to the doctor to see what was up. Little did they know that our lives were about to change forever.

At the doctor’s appointment, we started explaining my symptoms and I’m sure it clicked right away with the doctor that our day was going end with a diabetes diagnosis. To be sure, though, he had me do a urinalysis and he had the nurse check my glucose. As soon as he saw that my sugar level was pushing 500mg/dl, he looked at my mom and said, “I’m sorry, but your son has type 1 diabetes.”

At the time I was just standing there pissed off because the stupid nurse just jabbed me in the finger and it was still hurting. The word “diabetes” meant absolutely nothing to me. I had no clue what diabetes was but I knew it wasn’t good when I saw the look on my mom’s face after she heard the news. It was sort of a cross between the look of a deer in the headlights and the fearful look of someone being held at gunpoint with a little bit of anger and frustration thrown in. When I saw the terror on her face, I knew this diabetes thing was pretty serious but I had just turned 11 so I had to act super tough and not show any emotion about this potentially crazy situation. A minute later the doctor took my mom into the hall to talk to her about the next few steps to deal with all of this. As they walked out the door I noticed tears beginning to form in her eyes and as soon as they were out of sight, I lost it. Despite my incredibly tough, 11-year old skin, I broke down. There was no way to hold myself together. I was terrified. The nurse that had poked my finger walked by and saw me so she stopped in and tried comforting me. At that moment I totally forgot about how much I hated her. I just wanted someone to be there and talk to me. After seeing the terror on my mom’s face and hearing the serious tone in the doctor’s voice, I was really lost and upset. I was so confused and had no idea what to do, how to act, or what was going to happen to me. Questions kept going through my head that had no answers for. What is diabetes? How is it treated? How long will I have it? Was I going to die?

After a few minutes of consoling by the now not-so-horrible nurse, my mom and doctor came back in and told me that we were going to head to the hospital for a few days to learn all about diabetes. Then we grabbed our coats and headed out the door for the first stop on the journey that was about to consume the rest of my life.

In the last decade I have not felt as scared or as lost as I felt on that day in January. As I look back at my early days with diabetes and compare those to where I am now, I want to say that being diagnosed with diabetes may have been the best thing that has ever happened to me, in a strange and slightly twisted way. It hasn’t always been good (like for the first year and a half of high school when I could not have cared less about controlling it, or even on days like the other day when I couldn’t get my sugars below 200mg/dl despite taking roughly 100u of insulin in under 24hrs) but dealing with this disease has taught me a lot about life and it has been instrumental in shaping who I am today. Despite the potential negative health consequences of diabetes, it has taught me a lot about responsibility because of the importance of checking and giving insulin at the correct time. I have learned how to break down and analyze situations before making a radical move and possible making a horrible mistake through diabetes, and in a sense it has even taught me a lot about how to communicate effectively with other people.

Unfortunately, it has been my experience that a lot of the population doesn’t really know very much about diabetes. I constantly get asked about my insulin pump on my arm, why I am poking my finger, or even what having diabetes means. I think the best one that I hear on a regular basis is “do you have diabetes bad?” After years of answering questions like these I have become very proficient explaining to others what diabetes is, how it’s managed, and that they shouldn’t feel sorry for me. All in all, dealing with diabetes has taught me a lot of very important life lessons and I don’t know where I would be today without it. Do you have a similar experience with diabetes or with overcoming your own obstacle? I would love to hear about it. Shoot me an email, or comment below. Hopefully someday everyone with have a nice, general understanding of diabetes so people dealing with it can live unobstructed lives and not get looked at strangely because someone doesn’t know what they are doing or so kids aren’t tempted to use diabetes as a way to poke fun at someone in middle school. I want to make that happen.


  1. Nicely stated Alex. I understand your statement regarding diabetes changing your life for the positive. I'm a T1 who spent a couple of years sulking about having the disease. Now I use it for the positive - I raise a ton of money for diabetes causes. And I keep my butt on the saddle for thousands of miles per year! Keep up the good fight!

  2. Thanks for reading Joe! It is always great to hear from anyone that puts a positive twist on diabetes. It took someone to help me do that to get under control while I was in high school and I can only speculate where I would be if I still wasn't checking and bolusing...thanks for doing all that you do! I can only imagine how many people are benefiting from all the work.