When Alma first became sick just before Christmas 1946, her parents thought she had the flu. She did not get better. Instead, Alma steadily lost weight. Almost two months passed before she was finally diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in February. She had just turned 12 years old.
Treatment of type 1 diabetes in the 1940s was not as easy or convenient as it is now. “I took an insulin shot every morning,” Alma says. “My mother boiled the glass syringes used to give the shot. The needle was twice the length of needles today and very thick. My dad would sharpen the needle only when it started to hurt me when it was pulled out. We needed them to last as long as possible.”
Alma lived on a farm just outside Edmonton, Alberta with her parents, two brothers and one sister. Canadians did not yet have health care coverage. Alma’s parents paid for her supplies and many stays in the hospital. Money from the sale of their cow’s milk was put aside each month.
The year that she was diagnosed, Alma’s uncontrollable blood glucose levels frequently required hospital stays.
“The doctor could not figure out how much insulin I needed,” she says. ”My parents often found I had low blood glucose when they came to wake me up.”
Alma and her mother stayed with friends in Edmonton so she could go into hospital to have her food and insulin needs reassessed.
“I would stay in the hospital for 10 days each time, until they thought they had it right,” Alma says. “This helped bring my blood glucose under control.”
Alma credits one of her doctors and her parents with teaching her to live successfully with diabetes. She quickly learned about glucose levels and how to inject herself with insulin.
This independence gave Alma the confidence she needed to get married, raise a child, volunteer in her community, and travel the world while dealing with diabetes. Today, she eats healthy, home-cooked, low fat meals. Housework, a little gardening, and cardio exercises twice a week keep her active. She says her neighbours always comment on how delicious her place smells when she is baking.
“Dr. Gordon Brown taught me that I could be in control of my diabetes and not let diabetes control me,” Alma says. “I haven’t been the perfect person with diabetes.
I used to sneak doughnuts that my mother kept frozen outside for Christmas. But I am always trying harder to do what I should.”
Still, Alma has experienced some long-term complications from diabetes.
“At one point, I met with my eye specialist and a nurse educator, who tried to prepare me for going blind,” Alma says.
Four rounds of laser surgery on her eyes allowed Alma to retain some vision. She can still read most items, but uses a magnifying glass for small print. Soon after her vision began to fail, Alma started using one of the first insulin pumps.
“I had to monitor my blood glucose for a whole year before I was allowed to go on the pump,” Alma explains. “Regular monitoring of blood glucose is one of the main keys to living well with diabetes. Checking my blood glucose frequently and making changes to my medications based on the readings allowed me to keep my blood glucose levels under control. I have had no more complications from my diabetes since beginning to monitor regularly and starting on an insulin pump.”
Still, Anna sees her diabetes as a blessing in disguise.
“It taught me to follow a routine and required that I have good eating habits. I also realized that I needed to accept help from others,” Alma says. “Having diabetes enhanced the compassion I have for others in distress. There are a lot of things worse than having diabetes.”
This year, Alma celebrated her 87th birthday, but she looks much younger. She has taken insulin for over 70 years. She is one of many people who have lived successfully with diabetes for decades.
On reaching her 50th year of insulin use, Alma was awarded three items: a limited-edition print of the home of Dr. Banting (the Canadian co-discoverer of insulin) from Novo Nordisk, a medallion on a sterling silver chain from Eli Lilly, and a bronze medal from the Joslin Diabetes Center engraved with the words ‘For 50 Courageous Years with Diabetes.’
Those who know Alma say she is an inspiration. In 2007, her extended family raised $155,000 for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation in Kelowna, British Columbia.
In Alma’s honour, they called themselves ‘Auntie’s Angels.’ Alma’s positive outlook is something to which everyone can aspire.
“I have tried not to let diabetes limit what I can do with my life,” Alma says. “Instead, I rejoice in what life brings my way.”
She also credits faith for seeing her through the tough times.
“I learned to pray at an early age and found both hope and comfort in that,” she explains.
The treatment of diabetes has changed tremendously in the past 70 years. New technologies, such as advances in blood glucose monitoring, allow better decisions about diabetes management. Taking this chronic condition seriously helped Alma to successfully manage her diabetes. As understanding about diabetes evolved, she kept up with the changing recommendations. She put in the time and effort to keep her diabetes under control.
By learning as much as you can and carefully controlling the disease, you too can live a long and healthy life with diabetes.