Diabetes – from a Loved-one’s Point of View

I find it sad when I see so many overweight people in North America. My concern isn’t because of the way they look, but because they seem to be oblivious to the health risks, even though they are well publicized.

A young woman who was a little overweight as a child, but slimmed down as a young adult has, since having a family it seems, given up the struggle to maintain a healthy weight. She’s been diagnosed with Diabetes.

A senior man who was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes and has other health issues that can be related to poor diet, finds it amusing to not only always eat whatever dessert is available to him, but to eat whatever his family or friends choose not to eat. His weight is rapidly rising and I warn him that if his Type 2 becomes Type 1, neither he nor his wife will be laughing anymore.

If these two people, and all of the thousands more that are putting themselves at risk, aren’t concerned about their own well-being, perhaps a look at how their poor health could impact their loved ones who will ultimately become their caregivers, might give them pause to reconsider. Having been such a caregiver, I can shed some light from this perspective.

“Do you wanna fight?” he asked as he smacked his fist into the palm of his hand.

He had a strange smirk on his face. I didn’t recognize him.

It was early in the morning and he had spent the night with me in my apartment. At first I laughed, thinking he was just fooling around, but when I spoke to him he didn’t respond. His eyes looked glazed. My heart leaped. Is this what he’d meant when he said, “if I start acting strange, give me some of these”, as he placed an orange package beside the bed?

“Leo, what are you doing? You’re scaring me. Do you need some of these?” I asked, offering him the square white candies from the package. He didn’t reply. I put one into his mouth and he chewed, still staring at me with that lopsided grin. Another one. Still he wasn’t responding. His legs started to twitch, very slightly at first. Then his arms and his torso began to shudder. His hands were clenched; his tongue moved from corner to corner of his mouth. His whole body began convulsing uncontrollably. Now I was really scared. I grabbed the phone and dialed 911.

“Ambulance please,” I replied to the query from the other end of the line.

Many questions were asked, for which I had no answers – date of birth, medications? All that I knew was that he was diabetic, that he was 43 years old, and we had only recently begun our relationship. I had a lot to learn. Until I met Leo, like many people, I had very little understanding of how devastating diabetes can be.

Over the next five years I experienced many such episodes, many far scarier than that one. I learned how to read the signs; I learned how to administer liquid sugar (Glucogone) by syringe when he’d taken too much insulin to counteract consuming too much sugar, and I was awakened early in the morning by his convulsing because his sugars had dropped too low. I became all too familiar with 911 procedures. I spent many hours waiting in the hospital Emergency Room until Leo was released. Besides the emotional trauma of it all, I often missed time at work. Since I was an hourly paid worker, that cost me money that I couldn’t afford to lose.

One time that remains most vivid in my memory is the morning when I awoke to a loud crash, in the house we were sharing with my daughter and her husband. Leo was gone from the bedroom. I ran to the kitchen to find his thrashing body face-down in front of the refrigerator, his wheelchair behind him holding the door open. I ran for the Glucogone while I screamed for my daughter for help. She and her husband ran up from their lower floor suite and I asked them to call 911 while, with shaking hands, I used the syringe to draw the liquid from one tiny bottle and insert it into the other bottle of powder, mixing them together slowly so as to not create air bubbles, and drawing the solution out again and jabbing the needle into Leo’s flesh. By the time the ambulance arrived the convulsions had stopped, but Leo wasn’t coming out of his daze. His glasses were broken and his face cut from the impact of his fall. I watched the paramedics load him into the ambulance, and took a moment to de-stress before throwing on some clothes to follow them to the hospital.

Leo was diagnosed with Type I (insulin-dependent) diabetes at the age of seven and during the next 38 years the disease would continually challenge him. Watching his diet and giving himself insulin shots was difficult for a young boy, and as a teenager he rebelled against the restrictions his illness imposed on him. His sugars skyrocketed at times. At the age of 21 his pituitary gland was removed to save his eyesight, but that meant he had to take more medication to make up for what his pituitary would have produced. By the time I met him he’d just been discharged from the hospital after having all of his toes and a portion of both feet amputated, the result of infection. He was a fighter though, and had been fitted for prostheses so he could continue to do the things he loved, like offering a helping hand to other people, and driving his car, and riding his motorcycle. However he was never able to take on another full-time job because his health was too unstable.

Each time Leo would go to the doctor for a check-up, he’d come back with another medication for a new health problem. In the spring of 2002 he told me that his doctor had put him on medication because his cholesterol was “a little high” (I learned later that he hadn’t quite been honest). Like many of his meds, it made him ill. I suggested he try changing his diet. Instead, he stopped taking the medication and increased his ice cream intake. I could see that he was growing weary of the fight to survive.

Returning from work one afternoon not long after that, I found him unconscious, the telephone and his orange package of candies beside him on the bed. I picked up the phone and made my last call to 911. The coroner confirmed that, as happens with many diabetics, Leo’s heart had given up. He was one month short of his 48th birthday.

To this day, the sound of an ambulance gives me chills, and an innocent twitch in the bed can wake me from a deep sleep.

It’s serious stuff, but it can be controlled. Yes, you might have to give up some of your favourite foods, and force yourself to take that daily walk, but what’s more important in life – the short lived pleasure of guilty treats, or sharing a longer, healthier life with loved ones? It’s your call.