Discovering that I had diabetes

Good health seems like a gift most of us receive for thirty to forty years then it becomes a responsibility for the rest of our lives. Is this your experience? It has certainly been mine. I was lucky because I know that many of us did not get this gift and struggle with health issues from early in life. However, for the first forty-five years of my life, I was extremely healthy. I rarely even caught a cold. Being healthy was fortunate for me because I had no health insurance or family support and if I became sick, I would be on my own. 

There is an arrogance that comes with being healthy for a long time.  I rarely visited the doctor or the dentist because I believed that my body would take care of any challenges it faced. I was thirty-five years old when I first visited the dentist. Can you imagine the amount of plaque that had accumulated in my mouth? I remember the dentist saying that he wanted to have my healthy teeth, and I made a wise crack that I wished I had his money. He did not think my joke was funny. One of the few times I went to the doctor, he told me that I should stay active because this was the source of my good health.  I had a feeling of invincibility. I was totally delusional, but all the evidence supported this belief.

However, on my forty-fifth birthday, all my delusions came crashing down. It was like someone turned on a switch. I noticed that I was thirsty very often and regularly had to run to the bathroom to urinate. Those days I was traveling every week to teach courses for IBM around the United States and, on occasion, internationally. IBM had a policy that if you were flying across the country, you could travel in business class. I flew on the Pan American 747 jets cross country with a private business class compartment on the second floor of the plane. I would board the aircraft, go upstairs, have a couple of drinks and fall asleep which made these 5-hour trips seem very short. What I did not realize was that I was falling asleep after a couple of drinks because I had diabetes and the alcohol was making me dangerously ill.

My mother was a diabetic, had lost the function of her kidneys and was on dialysis before she died suddenly from a heart attack. My father also died from diabetic complications, but none of these messages registered with me.   I was invincible remember. However, one Monday during the summer of 1993 before my next trip on Tuesday, I felt a little off. As you would expect, I did not have a doctor, so I went to an emergency room to get help.  I gave them my symptoms of frequent urination and high thirst. The physician's assistant, who was helping me, decided to check the level of my blood sugar. A person who was not diabetic would have blood glucose levels of approximately 130 milligrams per decilitre of blood before meals.  If the measurements exceeded this limit, then that person is most likely diabetic.  The instrument the physician's assistant used had a range from 0 decilitres to 600 decilitres.  When he measured my blood glucose level, it registered 600. Naively, I asked him if this was a high measurement. He answered that he had never seen it higher. He left immediately to get the doctor who ran into the room in a panic and told me to go directly to the hospital because I had an extreme case of diabetes.  As soon I arrived at the hospital, I was put into a wheelchair and taken to a private room. I don't think I even filled out any forms. Nurses and doctors surrounded me; taking my vital signs and measuring more precisely my blood glucose levels. My blood glucose level was not 600 milligrams; it was 750 milligrams. The doctors feared that I would fall into a diabetic coma, and they were doing everything they could to stabilize me.  I felt no distress but felt a degree of panic by the concern in the eyes of the people treating me. 

I was in the hospital for a week with blood glucose level as high as 400 milligrams. The doctors were not able to completely get my blood sugars under control. So, they counseled me on how to manage my diabetes.  They said that I would have to take an injection of insulin every day for the rest of my life, but before they would start the regiment, they wanted me to take some oral medication which they believed would not work, but he wanted me to have the opportunity to avoid the insulin injections.  I left the hospital weak, scared and confused. I went to the library to research how to manage diabetes and found out that if I did regular exercise and controlled the amount of carbohydrate I ate each day, I would have a good chance of managing my diabetes without insulin shots. This information gave me hope. I was too weak to run, but I could walk. As soon as I started to walk, my sugar levels returned to normal. I told the doctor the good news, but he was not impressed. He said that this was only a temporary remission and diabetes would return shortly. However, his pessimism or realism did not discourage me.  I was stronger than I was when I left the hospital which meant I could run. I decided to run 5 miles a day every day to keep this diabetes under control.  I did this for ten years and during that time, I had no diabetic symptoms. The doctor was amazed, and he took me off all medication. I have been managing my diabetes for the last twenty-four years, but it becomes harder as I age.