Just before Christmas 1946, Alma became sick with what her parents thought was the flu. She did not get better, but steadily lost weight. Alma was not diagnosed with type 1 diabetes until February. She had just turned 12 years old.
Alma will celebrate her 73rd birthday this year, but looks much younger. She is one of many who have lived successfully with diabetes for decades.
Alma has taken insulin for over 60 years. Upon 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.’
When Alma was diagnosed in the 1940s, treatment of diabetes was not as easy or convenient as it is now. “I took an insulin shot every morning,” says Alma. “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 and three brothers and sisters. Since 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 was in the hospital frequently due to uncontrollable blood glucose levels.
“The doctor could not figure out how much insulin I needed. My parents often found I had low blood glucose when they came to wake me up,” she says.
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 how to inject herself with insulin and check her glucose levels. This independence gave Alma the confidence to get married, raise a child, volunteer in her community, and travel the world while dealing with diabetes. She eats healthy, home-cooked, low-fat meals and keeps active with housework, gardening and weekly swimming.
“My doctor 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.”
One long-term complication of diabetes for Alma has been vision loss. “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 some vision. Soon after this scare, 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.”
“I view my diabetes as a blessing in disguise,” says Alma. “It taught me to follow a routine and required that I learn good eating habits. I also realized that I needed to accept help from others. Having diabetes enhanced the compassion I have for others in distress. There are a lot of things worse than having diabetes.”
Alma is an inspiration to all who know her. Her extended family raised $155,000 this year for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation in Kelowna, British Columbia. They called themselves ‘Auntie’s Angels’ in Alma’s honour. 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.” Treatment of diabetes has changed tremendously in the past 60 years. As we learn more about how diabetes affects the body, recommendations on how to stay healthy change. New technologies, such as blood glucose monitors, give us the information we need to make better decisions about diabetes management.
The key to managing diabetes successfully is to take this chronic condition seriously. Learn as much as you can about keeping diabetes under control. Once you know what to do, put in the time and effort. By carefully controlling the disease, you too can live a long and healthy life with diabetes.