26 June, 2009
I had woken up with Michael Jacksons’ “Ben” streaming out the radio. The news of his death had reached South Africa. I wrote my last mid-year examination of Grade 10 and celebrated by watching the newly released “The Hangover”. While we discussed the obsceneness of the film, I received a not-so-average phone call from my mom who had taken my little brother to see a doctor.
“Tracy, your brother has been diagnosed with type one diabetes”
Sure, my brother David had looked exceptionally unwell, stick thin and couch ridden, a far cry from his athletic build and energetic character. But what on earth is type one diabetes (T1D)?
“So what does that mean? Does he need antibiotics?” I replied.
Little did I know the whirlwind that was about to hit my brother and my family. We all grappled with the concept of T1D. What do you feed a type one? Is sugar bad? Insulin injections? What is insulin? Daily monitoring of blood sugars? We were a family unit exceptionally confused and desperate to help David through this diagnosis, but not fully understanding how.
David had gone from carefree 14-year-old to being his own doctor and primary caregiver- administering his medication every day. He singularly experienced crippling low blood sugars when injecting excess insulin and the exhaustion of high sugars when he did not take enough. He was alone with these feelings as we could only try to understand and help where we could.
The integration of diabetes into an individual’s life and further more into a family’s life is challenging with mental, emotional and physical hurdles. Education regarding T1D came through websites, the endocrinologist, courses, and books, but more potently- through the experience living with a T1. We learned together through trial and error. We now knew and understood the symptoms, lifestyle of consequences of this chronic illness. (That most definitely does not require antibiotics, thank you Tracy of ‘09.)
At least, we all thought we had the subject waxed.
20 October, 2013
I stared at my skeletal body in the mirror, my 20-year-old, incapable and broken body. My body and mind were permanently exhausted and constantly failing me. My bloodshot eyes searched and traced my bones. My head was surging and nausea scratched at my dry throat. Surely not, I thought.
With a knotted stomach and shattered threshold, I asked David to test my blood sugar. The countdown of the tester was excruciating, how could 8 seconds feel like an eternity? The monitor greeted me with a beep and a cheeky “HI”. Simple as that, I was diagnosed with type one diabetes. The tears flooded my eyes and streamed across my face.
My heart felt an incredible amount all at once.
It broke and ached.
It felt immense relief finally knowing why I was sick.
It broke again, for now I needed to break my parents’ hearts.
It sang that my brother and I were now a team.
I went from standing on the outside of T1D, curiously and helplessly peering in at my brother, to stepping in, right by his side with my own T1D diagnosis. I watched David tackle it for four years, expressing my sympathy and support. Now I was fully thrust into a position of empathy – I now knew what he felt.
With 10 years of exposure to T1D from David’s diagnosis to my own, I have felt the obvious lack of knowledge surrounding T1D in society. We don’t know the symptoms and we cannot seem to recognize the lethal combination of exhaustion, excessive thirst and bathroom breaks, unintended weight loss, blurry vision, irritability, and nausea. I was a second-year medical student, with a T1D brother yet it still took me months, to acknowledge my symptoms, to recognize my disease and act accordingly.
The thought that I possibly had T1D did flash across my mind in my last weeks leading up to my diagnosis but I kept dismissing my symptoms:
I am exhausted from being so busy.
I am thirsty and losing weight because I am doing Bikram Yoga.
I am crying, angry and frustrated each day because it has been a tough year.
I am simply burnt out.
The symptoms are problematic as they can be explained by most stressors in modern daily activities, which effectively delay an important diagnosis. Further impairing prompt and vital healthcare falls upon the shoulders of health-care professionals. The T1D diagnosis is often missed. It is a tragic oversight as it can be suspected by simply taking a patient’s history and performing affordable bedside tests. A urine dipstick or a finger prick glucose test can often scream T1D. The delay and failure of diagnosing T1D carries a heavy price, such as the heart-breaking stories of little Kycie Jai Terry (5), Claire Taylor (17) and Nicola Rigby (26), all losing their lives to undiagnosed T1D.
Living with this chronic illness has made me acutely aware of spreading my knowledge and insight into T1D. This inspired me to start my own Instagram account, type1tracy. Diabetes has enriched my approach in my medical studies, as I have become the chronic patient. It has made me mindful, grateful and present. Accepting my diagnosis, I have achieved more than imaginable and am blessed with appropriate medical health care. It has made me strive to be the best doctor I can be.
If you have T1D, you are empowered with knowledge. You never know whose life you may change by injecting your insulin in public, sharing your diagnosis, your symptoms, and your experiences. Above all, you can change lives and your own, by fully embracing type one diabetes – all while being unapologetically you.