In 1991, I had finished my Marine Biology degree and was part-way through a non-fiction writing diploma at the University of B.C. On Spring Break in March, I visited my parents, who were then living in Toronto. I didn't feel well: tired, cranky, dehydrated, out of sorts in many ways. Each night, I had to go to the bathroom several times, which was unusual for me at the time. I was losing weight. My vision was a bit funny, and I was unusually hungry. But I was only 21 years old, in strong health, regularly riding my bicycle to school.
Perhaps I had a kidney infection, but I wasn't sick enough to see a doctor—I would wait until I returned to Vancouver. When the time came to do that, I was skinnier than ever, constantly thirsty, fatigued, and grumpy as I boarded the plane. I chugged free ginger ales the whole way back across the country. (I later realized this was a bad idea.)
Too sick to wait
I arrived on a Thursday, and was getting even sicker. I phoned my doctor's office as soon as I got home to make an appointment, but the soonest he could see me was Monday. I went to bed. And stayed there. I was too weak and tired to do anything on Friday or Saturday. My roommates were worried about me: they'd seen how much I'd thinned out while I was away, and how much weaker I was.
They decided I couldn't wait till Monday: I was too ill, and I was going downhill fast. They drove me to Burnaby Hospital's Emergency department, no arguments from me allowed. Within minutes of being brought past triage, a doctor smelled my breath and figured out what was going on: the distinctive sickly-sweet scent of ketoacidosis, caused by my body breaking down muscle and fat instead of digesting food.
It was almost certain that I had type 1 diabetes. Sometime in the past few weeks, my pancreas had stopped producing insulin, preventing my body from metabolizing the food and drink I'd been consuming. Glucose levels in my blood had been rising and rising, and every meal and sugary drink I consumed had been making things worse.
A quick blood test confirmed it. For normal people, glucose is dissolved in the bloodstream at concentrations between 4 and 8 millimoles per litre (mmol/L). (Some other countries, such as the U.S., measure in milligrams per decilitre, where those readings would be between 70-140 mg/dL.) That's normal, between 4 and 8. What was my reading that night in the hospital?
Thirty-two! Four times the highest regular reading, and almost off the scale for most consumer blood-glucose measuring devices.
I almost smacked my forehead. I'd learned about diabetes during my biology degree. I had every sign and symptom in the book. But it had never occurred to me that I might develop the condition: I didn't know of any family history, I was a strapping young guy, and yet I was actually older than most people who get the disease. It is an autoimmune disorder, where my own immune system attacked and destroyed the insulin-producing cells in my pancreas, and most type 1 diabetics first develop it around puberty, which is why it's also known as juvenile diabetes.
Learning to manage
But there I was, diabetic. The staff started giving me insulin, rehydrating me, and getting my electrolytes and other body chemistry back in balance. They started to explain diabetes to me in the simplest possible language, but I stopped them and asked if they could track down a textbook. Over the next few days I'd need to learn how to measure my blood sugars and inject insulin to control them, along with adjusting what, how much, and when I ate. Exercise and stress affect things too. I figured if I read some background physiology on the disease, I'd be better prepared.
Soon enough I was admitted to a regular ward, and soon enough after that, feeling healthy and starting to regain some weight, I was bored. But I still needed to learn how to manage my diabetes, something I knew I'd have to do the rest of my life. I learned as much as I could then (I couldn't leave the hospital without the basics), and more afterwards at various clinics over the years.
And for 20 years now, I have managed it. Through university, jobs, marriage, children, and especially during my cancer treatment—which diabetes makes even more complicated—I've been keeping my blood glucose under control. Not too high, not too low. I measure several times a day by poking the end of a finger and having a tiny meter read a drop of my blood. Enough insulin to handle my meals, but not too much. I inject that at least four times daily. Adjustments for exercise. Awareness of how it feels if my blood glucose suddenly goes low, and what to do about it (quick answer: down a can of Coke).
I always figured I would reach this 20-year milestone. Diabetes hasn't been cured, but modern treatments, with accurate portable meters and genetically-engineered insulin, make it easier than ever for us diabetics to live relatively normal lives.
While I haven't been perfect at the task, I've done pretty well, and have avoided any complications for two decades. One twisted consequence of my terminal cancer is that now I won't face them at all, since any complications that did arise would be decades away. I won't live that long.
Without those modern treatments, I would have died early in 1991, and never gotten married, had kids, started a blog, or developed cancer. That's certainly something.