World Diabetes Day is on 14th November each year, to raise awareness of the diabetes epidemic. My father became a Type 2 Diabetic at the age of 60…
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I have the interesting stories of two diabetics to share with you, but first let’s take a quick look at Diabetes.
What is Diabetes?
According to Diabetes UK, “Diabetes is a condition where the amount of glucose in your blood is too high because the body cannot use it properly.
This is because your pancreas doesn’t produce any insulin, or not enough insulin, to help glucose enter your body’s cells – or the insulin that is produced does not work properly (known as insulin resistance).”
“Diabetes develops when glucose can’t enter the body’s cells to be used as fuel. This happens when either:
- There is no insulin to unlock the cells (Type 1)
- There is not enough insulin, or the insulin is there but not
working properly (Type 2).”
Key Statistics on Diabetes1
- A person dies from diabetes every 6 seconds!
- 1 in 2 (46%) people with diabetes are undiagnosed
- 1 in 7 births were affected by diabetes
- Approximately 415 million adults have diabetes
- 642 million adults are expected to have diabetes by the year 2040. It’s a global epidemic
Source:  The IDF Diabetes Atlas, Seventh Edition 2015
My Father’s Story—Type 2 Diabetic
My father was a Senior Charge Nurse in the Operating Theatre / Room in a hospital. He had a pot belly, but the rest of him was lean. He ate reasonably “healthy” and was active, on his feet all day long.
One day at work, he developed a raging thirst, and recognised the symptoms of diabetes. He self-tested his blood glucose and sure enough, it confirmed his suspicions, so he booked an appointment with his doctor.
He was placed on medication to lower his blood sugar. By reducing his carbohydrate consumption and eating more fibrous carbs, the strength of his tablets was gradually reduced over the years.
I remember him regularly pricking his finger with the testing kit throughout the day, and keeping a detailed journal of the results, and what he’d eaten to end up with those figures. That helped him to understand how certain foods affected his body, so he could change his eating habits.
He was still active all day long, and having diabetes didn’t get in the way of anything we did as a family. Sadly his condition worsened due to a different disease, and he died nearly 20 years later at age 78.
Polly’s Story—Type 1 Diabetic
I spoke to Polly, a single mum in her thirties, with a 7 year-old daughter.
How did you find out you were diabetic?
“My father was a diabetic type 1. I was jumping on a bed with my best friend, and my mother looked at me and said ‘you’re incredibly thin compared to your best friend’—because up until three months previously we had been the same size. And because of my father she knew the warning signs…and that day I started drinking, and drinking, and drinking.
So she took me to the doctors and said ‘my child’s diabetic’. Unfortunately the doctor didn’t believe her, and thought she was being over-protective; so she had to fight quite hard to get them to take my blood sugar.
She had to go back two days later. So she had me fully diabetic for two whole days. Just drinking, and being sick—I started getting very ill. So she walked back in and said ‘this child is diabetic’—it was a different doctor and he said ‘yes, you’re probably right’. So she diagnosed me.
I then diagnosed my brother. He was 21, and he came home from London, sat down and drank 5 pints of Ribena. And I went ‘I think I need to take your blood sugar’. All of the males on my Dad’s side are diabetic, but I’m the only woman.”
How has being a diabetic affected your fitness over time?
“I was a totally normal child—I could run, I could do everything. But when I got to 11, at big school, I used to sit out of a lot of PE classes, because they were running track across a field. I invariably got half way round, and fell over hypo [hypoglycaemic].
So from eleven, my fitness levels started to go down, just because it was so difficult to control at school. If you take too many mars [chocolate] bars before you run…then if you only have two injections a day and you haven’t got it at school with you, then you’re in trouble for the rest of the day.
There wasn’t as much understanding when I was a child, as there is now—it was much easier as a child just to not do it. And in those days we were using syringes; having them at school was dangerous, in case other kids played with them. But later it went to proper injection pens, and really small blood sugar testing kits, so you could keep them on you.
Just before I was pregnant, I could do most things without being breathless—I went swimming, I joined a gym, so I was pretty normal, now that I had my diabetes under control.
It wasn’t like at school, as I had it [insulin and carbohydrates] with me, or I could go home and get it. So it was much easier [to exercise], you just do what Diabetes UK tell you—which is to check your blood sugar before, and in the middle [of your workout], and after. So it works beautifully.
My fitness levels really went down when I had a baby at 26 years-old. I was incredibly ill throughout the whole pregnancy, thanks to the diabetes. And after, I was anorexic for about a year. I wasn’t trying to [lose weight], my body just rejected food. So without food, you don’t have the energy to exercise—you can’t do anything.
And of course, having a child means you don’t get time; if you’re a single parent anyway. It took two years to get healthy enough to stand up, after giving birth. And since then, my fitness levels went down and stayed down.
So getting them back up is quite a scary prospect. I have to start walking. It’s not like I can say ‘I’ll go out for a jog’, it’s not even that. So I’ve got to start at the beginning.
Only last year, after seven years, I’ve got over being quite so ill. So now I’m in a position where I could exercise.”
How do you think being a diabetic has affected you as a mother?
“I’m very aware if she drinks too much. She is like me and doesn’t want to eat much. I watch her sugar intake quite closely. I do take her blood sugar [level] every six months—I do it myself.
I’m watching her weight, perhaps more closely than a normal parent would.
Every Friday night is treat night, so I take her out for a treat [to the sweet shop]. And last week she picked up 6 bottles of drink and no chocolate. And that to me was terrifying. ‘Right, we’re going home and testing your blood sugar.’ No child choses 6 drinks over chocolate. How to give a diabetic mother a total heart attack! She was checking the sugar content. I’m just quietly aware. I’m watching for it.”
How does having a diabetic mother affect your daughter?
“She is very good. When mummy says ‘I’m hypo’, she goes to the chocolate bin and brings me food—he knows how to deal with a hypo.
I have taught her how to use it [an insulin injection pen], but she’d never need to, because when it goes dangerously high [blood glucose], I can still function. I think, like a lot of diabetics, I have more fear of going hypo [than hyperglycaemic], because I could be alone with no one to help.”
Diabetes UK have an article on Managing Hypo Anxiety here
“If I need hospitalisation, she’s incredibly good. She understands. She’s not afraid of paramedics—they’ve been in at two o’clock in the morning…and she’s playing Barbies with one, while the other is putting up a drip for me.
She’s had a diabetic mum since she was born—she doesn’t know any different. So she is incredibly good at spotting my face. When my face goes blank, she says ‘mummy, are you feeling alright?’ And she’ll toddle off and get it. If I have got high blood sugar, she’ll get me some water. But I don’t need her to—I’m not dependent on her. She isn’t a carer, or anything like that. She’s sensitive to it, but she’s so amazing with it.
Because, I had to go into hospital for three days, with really high blood sugar that wouldn’t come down. It causes vomiting—it’s not nice, it’s painful, it burns everywhere, because your blood turns acidic. So they have to get your blood sugar down by drips and things. And she sits with me. She stays with my mum.
She FaceTime’s me—‘you coming home yet? Alright.’ So she knows I’m in the best place. She is blasé about it, which I think a child should be. She knows it’s important, and she knows if ‘mummy’s hypo’ then she needs to do something about it.
But it doesn’t ruin anything in her life. It’s not ‘oh we can’t do that because mummy’s diabetic.’ That’s never been said. So it doesn’t affect her really.”
Has being a diabetic stopped you from doing “normal” activities with your daughter?
“Dating” [she laughs].
“I was 26 when I had a child. So at that point it’s all dreamland, and isn’t it going to be wonderful…we can run in the park, or I can teach her how to ride her bike; I can teach her how to ice skate.
Of course I can’t do any of those things. My energy levels are so low, that teaching her how to ride a bike—I can’t run along side her, because the fitness levels just aren’t there. And I’m very lucky she’s a girl, because if I’d had a boy, I’d be in much more trouble. I’d be trying to play football. So running, I just can’t do.
So I have very, very good friends, who come down and run with her, and teach her how to ride a bike. So my brother will do fitness stuff with her. And we use her cousin’s, who are older—who’ll teach her how to ride a bike, teach her how to trampoline. All the things that mummy can’t do—I’ve replaced with people who can.
So she might say ‘mummy run’, occasionally—and we make it into a joke. So ‘that would be funny, mummy would just fall over, cartwheel on the floor, and end up on her bottom’. On [school] sports day, she’d never say ‘mummy why aren’t you running?’ Because she knows.
So I get her uncle down, and he runs. So I’ve sort of put other people in, to do that for me. We do a lot of stuff together that’s sitting down. So, it works.”
Regular Exercise can be beneficial for Diabetics
Emma Elvin, Clinical Advisor at Diabetes UK, said: “While we all know that being active is good for our health, both physical and emotional, it’s important to be aware that getting active and staying active can help you manage your Type 1 diabetes, Type 2 diabetes—or help you reduce your risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Being active can help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. It can also help the body to use insulin more efficiently and regular activity can help reduce the amount of insulin you have to take. For people with diabetes being active can also help to reduce the risk of some of the long term health complications.”
When I qualified as a Personal Trainer at Gymnacity in Oxted, UK, I also took the opportunity to take an extra certification—GP Exercise Referral, which enables me to train people with common conditions like diabetes. If you’re a diabetic starting to think about exercising, make sure you look for a trainer with that qualification.
Trainers without the GP Exercise Referral qualification are supposed to refer you to one that does—but in practice they often overlook this, and train you when they shouldn’t, so you should always check first.
Polly, where do you personally look for information and support on diabetes?
“I go on the Diabetes UK website. So you can answer questions and write questions in the forum.”
If anyone has diabetes or wants to find out more about the condition, they can visit www.diabetes.org.uk, as it’s packed with information on Diabetes. It has lots of useful tips and practical advice, from portion size to carb counting, and hundreds of recipes.
People can also find out more about the research Diabetes UK are funding, and the work of their volunteers. If you would prefer to speak to someone then you can also call their Helpline on 0345 123 2399.
Polly also uses Diabetes Support on Facebook.
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George D. Choy
Personal Trainer & Calisthenics Instructor
Gymnacity in Oxted, Surrey, United Kingdom