By Lindsey Anderson
I remember the day that I knew I was dying.
Death crept upon me like carbon monoxide, turning my blood to acid and incinerating my internal organs. Over July of 2012, I lost fifteen pounds and regularly chugged water in attempt to cure a thirst that refused to cease, which I ascribed to my high activity level and the summer heat. I did not recognize my decline until I woke one morning to meet a stranger in the mirror, masked in sunken cheekbones and desiccated lips.
I was rushed to the hospital later that day to accept my fate—a diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes (T1D). An autoimmune attack was destroying the insulin-producing cells in my pancreas. I was not creating enough insulin for glucose to be used as energy in my cells, and I reached a near-death state prompted by starvation. As someone with no prior education on diabetes, I did not realize I was in for the fight of my life.
During the time of my diagnosis, I was an athletic 20-year old woman on vacation from the University of Idaho enjoying the languor of Sandpoint summer. I bussed tables at a restaurant in town six days a week when I was not hiking or wakeboarding. Diabetes was something I heard about—rarely—in conversation, or in the media in reference to an unhealthy lifestyle, hashtagged beneath pictures of donuts on Instagram. It was something that never crossed my mind.
In the Intensive Care Unit, amid the smell of rubbing alcohol, nurses hooked me up to IV fluids and drew my blood every two hours. By the second day, it appeared as though I had shot up enough heroine to satisfy 10 addicts. My fingertips were poked for glucose tests until my scabs resembled constellations.
I felt strong enough to sit upright and consume food on the third day of my hospital visit, yet I was still in denial about the severity of diabetes. I believed my life would return to normal once I was released from the ICU.
As I flipped through channels on the television and updated my Facebook status on the unfortunate circumstances of hospital mealtime, a nutritionist rolled in a cart of fake food. Plastic muffins, bananas, and potatoes adorned its shelves, glowing in the fluorescent light. I frowned at her punitively, as if the food carried an authentic scent.
“Are you ready to learn how to count carbs?” she asked, informing me that I must incorporate this knowledge into my daily existence for eternity in order to balance insulin injections with the carbohydrates I devour to keep my blood sugar in a safe range. I forced a half-smile over the lump that formed in my throat, and nodded in agreement.
After a week, I departed the ICU with insulin needles, a glucose meter, lancets, a carb-counting manual and a wavering sense of hope about my new lifestyle. I was warned about hypoglycemia, a potentially fatal condition caused by injecting too much insulin into the bloodstream, and hyperglycemia, which causes long-term complications such as neuropathy, kidney failure, and limb amputation (to name a few).
In the last four-and-a-half years since my diagnosis, I have become hyperaware of blood sugar changes, keeping snacks within reach when I feel like I am fading from a low blood sugar, or calculating an insulin dosage for high blood sugar that I can feel pumping through my veins like a freight train. Stress, weather changes, illness, exercise, lack of sleep, and food choices constantly threaten my equilibrium.
T1D is still recognized as a medical enigma, though professionals believe a virus confuses the immune system into attacking the pancreas. The media generally covers Type 2 diabetes—a different disease in which insulin is produced, but not used properly in the body—that inflicts 90 percent of the diabetic population. T1D symptoms include excessive thirst, weight-loss, fatigue, vision change, frequent urination and fruity-smelling breath. Because the reality of T1D remains obscure, most people do not identify the signs until they are near death.
Nowadays, I wear an insulin pump and test my blood sugar six to ten times a day in order to manage my condition. Insulin is constantly administered through my pump, while I calculate and deliver insulin doses for my meals, or high blood sugar readings. Although this makes me somewhat of a robot, it has helped me live life more fully.
My twin sister was diagnosed with T1D two years after me. Her diagnosis propelled me beyond much of the bitterness I felt having a relentless, invisible illness. We support each other to continue an active and uninhibited lifestyle. Ultimately, I hope for an eventual cure for T1D.
Until then, I praise and advocate for the invisible fighters, who survive and thrive, while balancing on the tightrope of highs and lows.
Do you have type 1 diabetes?
Type 1 diabetes develops gradually, but the symptoms may seem to come on suddenly. If you notice that you or your child have several of the symptoms listed below, make an appointment to see the doctor.
Over time, a decreasing amount of insulin is made in the body, but that can take years. When there’s no more insulin in the body, blood glucose levels rise quickly, and these symptoms can rapidly develop:
•Extreme weakness and/or tiredness
•Nausea and/or vomiting
•Wounds that don’t heal well
•Irritability or quick mood changes
•Changes to (or loss of) menstruation
There are also signs of type 1 diabetes. Signs are different from symptoms in that they can be measured objectively; symptoms are experienced and reported by the patient. Signs of type 1 diabetes include:
•Weight loss—despite eating more
•Rapid heart rate
•Reduced blood pressure (falling below 90/60)
•Low body temperature (below 97º F)