What I’ve learned in my 17 years with Type 1 diabetes.
A chronic illness, by definition, is managed and dealt with on a daily basis. While some are more severe than others, they all take dedication and sound knowledge in order to live a healthy life. According to the National Health Council, nearly half of American adults have a chronic illness, some of them with more than one. The good news? Most chronic illnesses are, while not curable, at least treatable. Juvenile, or Type 1, diabetes is one example.
I’m just going to lay it all out there: I grew up with bladder infections. So, when I was drinking ridiculous amounts of water and constantly going to the bathroom during Christmastime of 2000, my family assumed that’s all it was. We were visiting my grandparents, like we did every year at Christmas, and we said we’d go to the doctor when we got back home if necessary. I felt fine.
As soon as we got home, I was taken to my family physician. I remember being scared when he told my parents my blood sugar was above normal levels, which probably meant I had diabetes, even though 7-year-old Megan had no idea what any of that meant. I don’t remember the ambulance ride to the hospital, but I do remember how difficult it was to get the IV in (dehydration is one of the symptoms of diabetes), and I remember how nice and comforting my medical team was. I was in the hospital for a week, during which I learned about my disease, watched my parents give each other shots to show me it didn’t hurt, and found out I would be living with this for the rest of my life.
I was very lucky. We caught it early. In many cases, people live for so long not knowing they have diabetes that they end up with ketoacidosis (a negative effect of diabetes when there’s too much glucose in your system). I also had an incredible support system of family and friends.
The pancreas is one of our least acknowledged organs, but it serves a vital purpose. When we eat, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin, which breaks the starches and sugars from our food down into glucose, which is used by our cells for energy. Without insulin, the sugar we eat stays in our bloodstream and creates a chemical imbalance, essentially poisoning our bodies from the inside. This flaw is what we call diabetes.
Diabetes takes two forms, Type 1 (previously known as juvenile onset) and Type 2 (previously known as adult onset). Nearly 10 percent of our population has one of these types, but only about five percent of those cases are Type 1. For patients with Type 2, the pancreas can sometimes still make insulin and can be treated with diet, exercise, medication, or insulin therapy. For patients with Type 1, the pancreas has completely ceased production and is only treated with insulin therapy. This includes daily blood sugar level testing and insulin injections.
While diabetes is one of the top ten causes of death in America, patients are able to live healthy lives with proper care and treatment.
Fortunately, there are options for support groups, camps, and other resources to help patients, family, and friends cope with this illness. In my experience, the best way to stay healthy is to lean on loved ones. Keep them educated on symptoms of low and high blood sugar levels, what your medicine and food schedule is, and what they should do in case of emergency. In college, I developed a severe case of ketoacidosis, and if it wasn’t for my boyfriend’s knowledge of my disease, I may not have made it to the hospital in time.
In addition to your inner circle, there are always local and online support groups to join. Capital Region Medical Center has a Living with Diabetes support group that meets on the second Monday of every other month.
For young kids, camps like Camp Hickory Hill, an overnight nature camp five miles north of Columbia, teach kids how to live full, healthy lives with diabetes. These camps have medically trained counselors that teach and supervise kids so they can have fun and parents can feel secure.
If you have a loved one with diabetes, take the time to fully understand what their daily lives entail and what they’re going through. While medicine has come a long way, dealing with a chronic illness isn’t always easy. It is frustrating, it is difficult, and it can’t always be dealt with alone.
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