Today is World Diabetes Day, a day led by the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) to raise awareness and advocate for this disease. Globally, there are 382 million people living with diabetes. The U.S. is one of the top 10 countries for the number of people with diabetes, which is about 24 million. The IDF estimates that worldwide the numbers will continue to increase so that by 2035, 592 million people will be living with this disease.
So what is diabetes, and why should we be worried? Put simply, diabetes is when the body’s pancreas stops producing insulin, which we need to digest our food for energy. Type 1, the version I have, is an autoimmune disease, where a person’s pancreas stops producing insulin completely, and one must take shots of insulin to live. Type 2, the version more well-known, is where a person’s pancreas is still producing some insulin, but not enough to convert all of the food into energy.
According to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), the largest global funder for Type 1 diabetes research, as many as three million people in the United States have Type 1 diabetes (15 percent of which are children). Like JDRF says, insulin is not a cure, and they are working to change Type 1 to type none.
One can hope.
More than five years ago, in March of 2009, I was presenting some undergraduate research at an anthropology conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was there with a few colleagues from school, all representatives of the university women’s center.
In between sessions, we rested in our hotel room. I was sitting on a red couch with a psychology doctorate student. We had just ordered salmon and steak from the hotel’s restaurant. I was on my eighth glass of water.
“Do you usually drink that much water?” she asked. She had short blond hair, an athletic but thin build, and a certain spunky energy when she walked. She was maybe five years older than me, but throughout the conference, I had connected with her more than anyone else.
“Yeah, I’m just always dehydrated,” I told her.
“You might want to ask your doctor about diabetes,” she said. I put down my water and turned towards her.
“Why is that?” I trusted her judgment, but felt a little put off by her straightforwardness. My whole family, my friends, my roommates, etc. all considered me one of the healthiest people they knew. Sure, I could afford to work out more and build some muscle, but I never questioned my health.
“I’m not saying you are. It’s just one of the tell-tale signs. My brother is diabetic,” she said. I nodded.
“I remember the day he was diagnosed. My parents had promised us all ice cream after the doctor’s visit. I was nine at the time so I was just excited about the ice cream. But after the visit, my parents were all upset, and everyone was quiet. We drove home. Mostly, I remember I was mad because we didn’t get ice cream. Of course, I didn’t understand then,” she said and smiled.
I smiled, too, but wondered what it would be like if one of my brothers was diagnosed with a chronic disease, how different my life might be. I didn’t ask her anything more and promised at my next doctor’s visit I would ask about it. But I never went to the doctor so I assumed I would never have to keep this promise.
For as long as I could remember, I had always drank lots of water. Water was my candy. But what I didn’t realize then was that my water intake had actually doubled over the past six months. I was constantly thirsty, constantly hungry, constantly exhausted, losing weight, and going to the bathroom two to three times per night. My psychology friend didn’t know this. If she had, maybe she would have been more serious about that doctor’s visit.
It was obvious to everyone except me that something wasn’t quite right with my body. My roommates had also noticed the excessive water drinking. My co-workers and boyfriend had noticed the excessive exhaustion – I had fallen asleep in meetings, during one-on-one conversations, and even while making out. But I was young and healthy. What could possibly be wrong with me?
A little over a month after the conference, I checked into the hospital. They diagnosed me with Type 1 diabetes. They admitted me with a blood sugar of 690; I checked out with a blood sugar of 200, a prescription for insulin and syringes, test strips, lancets, and my first glucometer. Diabetes is no joke. If my friends hadn’t noticed symptoms, if I hadn’t checked in with the doctor, and if I had never accepted the possibility of this disease, it’s very likely that my body would have shut down, having run on high blood sugar levels for six months, and I would have died.
But I was young and healthy. What could possibly be wrong with me? With no family history of the disease, the doctors still don’t know why I have diabetes. With no evidence of an autoimmune disorder, they still don’t know why my pancreas stopped working. But it did, and thankfully with advances in technology, I can live. But this is not a cure. So I hold onto my insulin pump and hope.