"Me and my diabetes are one. We argue, and no day is ever the same. But the way I see it: every experience is an opportunity to learn"
To raise awareness of World Diabetes Day on 14th November, Operations Business Analyst Martin Thornell details what diabetes is, his experience living with the condition, and how he has managed it for over 40-years:
“I received a type 1 diabetes diagnosis just before my second birthday in April 1983. In short, it’s when you suffer from unnaturally high blood sugars and your pancreas doesn’t work, or, isn’t working enough.
There are two main types: type 1 and type 2. People with type 1 experience high blood sugar because the pancreas is not producing any insulin to fight the sugars. There are no known causes as to why the pancreas stops working, although some people believe it can be the result of a big shock. This is what my mum attributes mine to, as I fell off a chair and hit my head on a door frame. From that moment on I developed the symptoms: dramatic weight loss, needing fluids all the time, and then needing the toilet – which are key features of high blood sugars.
In type 2 the pancreas is not producing enough insulin. But with good management – i.e. diet control – it is possible to get it working to a standard that requires no tablets or medication.
I don’t remember much about my diagnosis, but consider myself very fortunate for a couple of reasons… My uncle was type 1, so although not having to deal with directly, my mum was aware of the condition. My local doctor also had an interest in the disease and the surgery always had a nurse with type 1 knowledge. This may sound basic, but it isn’t always the case, as often type 1s don’t receive the necessary support because GPs or nurses have more knowledge of type 2 (I understand why when you consider over 90% of diabetics are type 2s – leaving us type 1s in a small 8% minority!).
If mismanaged diabetes can lead to a host of complications with your body, eyes, feet, heart, and kidneys to name a few. A telling stat is that a diabetic is 20 times more likely to suffer an amputation compared with someone without the disease.
What does managing it mean? Simply, the aim is to keep your blood sugar levels in the range they would be if the pancreas was fully functional: between 4 and 7 millimoles per litre.
There are many ways to help this…
Ensure your diet is healthy and well-balanced, and get good exercise. Knowing the signs of high blood sugars (hyperglycaemia) and low blood sugars (hypoglycaemia) also helps you to react to both, as it’s grim to suffer with either for a prolonged period.
A key sign of hypos (hypoglycaemia – low blood sugars) for me is ‘the shakes’. I feel it and can see my hands physically shaking, and alongside it, often look drained of colour and take longer to process information. This is my body craving sugar, so when it happens I take sugary drinks/foods onboard to counter how low my sugars have dropped. It’s a fine balance though, as too much sugar and you will go hyper (into hyperglycaemia – high blood sugars), so sometimes I need to be stopped from taking too much.
For me, signs of hypers (hyperglycaemia – high blood sugars) involve frequently visiting the toilet, dehydration, and needing that glass of water. It’s a repetitive cycle that contains the same tiredness experienced in hypos. This is where injections and insulin comes in to help lower it.
It’s important to note there are many more symptoms, including people passing out when having a hypo. Having said that, from sterilising glass syringes to smartphone interaction, the advancement in technology to help manage diabetes has been huge in my time with the disease.
I’ve had some pretty medieval items to monitor my blood sugars over the years, not least the finger pricking machine (a very sharp pin fired into your finger each time you needed to measure it). Nowadays I wear a patch on my arm that I can scan with my smartphone to get my readings. It’s been a huge game-changer, as the app it’s paired with constantly monitors my sugar levels in the background.
It’s a similar story for the injections. Previously I had to draw up insulin from a bottle and flick air bubbles out prior to injecting, ensuring my glass syringe was sterilised after each use.
Today I use a Novopen, which has a detachable needle feature that is simple to change. Again, it can be used with my smartphone app to record my every injection and dosage. I have questioned myself in the past: did I do my injection? We’re all busy people and other things can get in the way, so knowing a missed a dose or injecting double dose is a thing of the past is a welcome thought.
I find it great. But also know that technology isn’t for everyone. There’s also the option of an insulin pump that manages your blood sugars and doses throughout the day, which is something I’m not that keen on – mainly because I worked hard to get my blood sugars under control.
I was once asked what it was like doing my first injection. In all honesty, I don’t recall it. But to me, injecting is part of my normal daily routine, changing over the years from two per day to four or more. They say you play the hand you’re dealt – which is exactly the approach I’ve taken! What other choice do you have?
Living with diabetes
Only recently I have considered it like a relationship. Me and my diabetes are one. We argue, and no day is ever the same – no matter how hard we try. It’s not easy. Some would say it’s very tough at times.
At the age of eight I’d been unwell and was unable to keep any food in my system. My parents made the decision not to administer my injections, as with zero sugars in my blood from food, they feared injections would take them too low. However, when diabetics are unwell the body will fight it and blood sugars will rise – so injection doses should increase slightly too. Safe to say I quickly became very unwell quickly and spent a week in hospital on an insulin drip! But the way I see it: every experience is a learning experience.
Nowadays, I can’t drive if my blood sugars are too low. They must be above 7, which goes against our target area – but for good reason. I often have uncomfortable nights due to high blood sugars, but I have tried to never let it take over my life. Admittedly, there have been prolonged periods of time when I was fed up, particularly in my twenties, which I suppose is common with any permanent disease.
However, when my daughter was born, in itself a very testing time, I learnt a huge amount about my diabetes that helped relate an awful lot to the past. For example, I used to get cross about silly little things, started to investigate it, and found it coincided with my blood sugars rising. I’m able to identify and deal with it now.
The weather will always affect us also. Too cold and my insulin takes longer to work, as the body closes to try and keep warm – so insulin is absorbed slower. Too hot and the reverse happens, the body relaxes so insulin travels easier and is absorbed quicker.
Sport is the ‘release’, I love any kind. Running in particular helps me manage my blood sugar and allowed me to fundraise for Diabetes UK by completing events such as half marathons.
In fact, I recently realised that I was involved in the clinical trials of taking photos of the back of the eyes (I have the polaroids somewhere!). This is a digital, routine checkup all diabetics have nowadays to ensure everything is fine and there are no underlying issues – which is a surreal nod to history I can take a lot of pride in.
It got me thinking… If a cure was found tomorrow, I am not sure I would want to change. After all, what would my life be without it?”