Deconstructing diabetes

On March 16, 1998, at the age of 12, my life as I knew it changed forever. After being rushed to the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario with unexplained symptoms including frequent urination, no appetite, extreme fatigue, unexplained weight loss and abdominal pain, I was diagnosed with Type 1
(juvenile) diabetes. I spent three days in intensive care, where my dangerously high blood sugar levels
were gradually brought back to within the normal range, and the remaining week in the hospital where my family and I learned the complexities of dealing with my condition.

My carefree life of a 12-year-old was gone forever, only to be replaced by daily blood glucose testing and injections of insulin to stay alive. Because of the stigma that is sometimes attached to having
diabetes, I was reticent to tell people about my condition when I first came to Queen’s. I took off my medic alert bracelet and I didn’t tell anyone about my condition, not even my don, because I feared
being judged or being thought of as disabled or different. Since being diagnosed, I have realized
that many people are not aware of the differences between Type 1 and Type 2, and group everyone with diabetes into the same category—often associated with the stereotype of being overweight and unhealthy, which are common misconceptions of people with juvenile diabetes. Although there are
over two million Canadians who live with both types of diabetes, only 10 per cent have juvenile diabetes. People with juvenile diabetes are diagnosed between birth and their early 20s and cannot metabolize food properly because their bodies produce no insulin, unlike people with Type 2 diabetes, who are usually diagnosed past age 40 and their bodies can’t produce enough insulin or can’t use it effectively. Because of my inability to produce insulin, I require three daily injections. I also have to monitor my blood glucose levels carefully to ensure they don’t drop too low, which could result in coma or death, or high blood sugar levels, which could lead to future complications such as blindness, amputation, kidney failure, heart disease and stroke.

Although the causes are not entirely known, scientists believe Type 1 diabetes has to do with a presence of an HLA marker gene in the body. However, approximately 90 per cent of people who develop juvenile diabetes don’t have any family members who have it—like me.

Many people I have met over the years don’t seem to realize what diabetes is, and through this editorial, I hope to educate people and increase awareness of a condition that affects approximately 1 in 300 people, some of which include Halle Berry and Mary Tyler Moore.

At times, living with diabetes can be a challenge, but I refuse to let it take control of my whole life and define who I am. I have come to realize that only through accepting what I have, educating people and telling them about the condition I live with, will they become more aware.

For more information about juvenile diabetes, please visit jdrf.ca.

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