When I first started dating my husband I didn’t even really know what the term blood sugar meant. I certainly didn’t know what was considered a “normal” blood sugar range (which is around 80-120). And I had no idea that my life would soon revolve around these numbers. Type 1 diabetes wasn’t even in my vocabulary. I thought there was just one type of diabetes, the kind that can be controlled with diet and exercise (Type 2 diabetes) Most of all, I had no idea Type 1 diabetes was life threatening.
My husband and I had only been dating a few weeks when I had to make the frantic 911 call. I had no idea that my husband had Type 1 diabetes. We were newly dating and I wasn’t privied to this personal information yet. Because of my husband’s private nature and my naïveté, my husband fell into a diabetic coma before my very eyes. We weren’t partying. Not in the excessive drinking context. In fact, we weren’t drinking at all. Just wasn’t our style. We had just watched the fireworks in Boston and had barbecued all day with his old crew team. At the end of the night we were talking at his house when his speech became slurred and very disorganized. Then what seemed like only minutes later, he became unresponsive. Luckily, his identical twin brother was still in the house and I ran to his room and told him that something was wrong with his brother. This is when I became glaringly aware of the depths of Type 1 diabetes. All I could do was watch as his brother frantically tried to force juice and sugar tablets down his throat. But Taylor was too far gone. His blood sugar was so low it didn’t even register on the glucose meter.
I called 911 and paramedics arrived seemingly quickly and gave him a glucagon shot. Within about 15 minutes, Taylor was starting to show signs of life again. And within an hour I was sitting with Taylor, hand in hand, and finally learning just a bit more about Type 1 diabetes. Taylor wouldn’t reveal too much, as it’s his nature to only say the bare necessities. The next day, it was my mission to learn everything about Type 1. I couldn’t help but feel guilty that I could have, should have, helped prevent the near fatal event the prior evening.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that attacks the pancreas killing all the insulin producing cells. Why is insulin important? Insulin carries the sugar that hangs out in our blood to our cells so our body can use that sugar. Without insulin, our brains and bodies would literally starve while our blood sugar would sky rocket. People with Type 1 need insulin as their life support. It’s a daily balancing act. A person with Type 1 diabetes is like a scientist as they try to determine how much insulin they need to give their body at each moment. Too much insulin means that the blood sugar drops drastically. We need some sugar in our blood. If our blood sugar (or blood glucose levels) drops too low, there are immediate and life-threatening symptoms: shaking, sweating, confusion, loss of muscle control, lack of coordination, all the way to loss of consciousness. Treatment for low blood sugar is sugar. Fast sugar. Think candy, juice, maple syrup.
On the other end of the spectrum is high blood sugar, for which the signs are less glaring and sometimes a bit harder to recognize. It often presents in fatigue, headaches, increased thirst, passing urine often, nausea, and difficulty thinking. The complications from high blood sugar are mostly long term, like loss of vision, feelings in your limbs, and organ failure. However, if high blood sugar goes untreated and continues to rise then diabetic ketoacidosis is a rise, which can involve loss of consciousness and death.
Type 1 diabetes affects everyone in the family. Everyone has to be aware of the symptoms and treatment. So what does that mean to our children? It means watching daddy eat jelly beans even though they can’t have any. It means knowing what every beep on his continuous glucose monitor means. It means having to say “daddy, you need to eat!” It means being patient. We have to make sure daddy’s blood sugar is within range, often. It means watching daddy change his insulin pump (every 3 days) and sometimes witnessing the horrifying circumstances when blood just starts gushing at the injection sight.
It means watching mommy have to forcefully and firmly coax daddy with sugar. It means sometimes, unfortunately, witnessing an extremely terrifying out of control, downward spiraling blood sugar as your daddy shakes, convulses, and drops to the ground. It means being acutely aware, always. It means empathy.
Loving someone with Type 1 diabetes means we have a huge responsibility to understand the disease as if we too struggle with its complications. It means advocating for Type 1 diabetes awareness. It means helping find a cure. Not only for the person we love but for the other 3 million Americans, and tens of millions worldwide, who also are desperate for a cure.
The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) has made amazing strides with research and development for treatment and finding cures. We are still searching for a cure because insulin is not the cure. Insulin is life support.