Most of the time, when people hear or refer to Diabetes, they’re referring to Type 2 Diabetes, also known as Adult-Onset Diabetes. It’s generally associated with obesity and a sedentary lifestyle.
But there’s a second version of Diabetes, known as Juvenile or Type 1 Diabetes (T1D) that has nothing to do with lifestyle or diet. It can’t be prevented or cured. And earlier this week, T1D claimed the life of my friend Joel Connable. Joel did everything he could to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, a charity that is trying to develop a cure for the disease. It was important to Joel to spread the word about warning signs and living with T1D, and it is in his loving memory that I wanted to share some facts about it.
T1D is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks the pancreas and destroys its insulin-producing beta cells. Don’t let the name “Juvenile Diabetes” fool you: it can affect children or adults and it can appear at any age. It strikes suddenly; in Joel’s case, he was diagnosed at age 13. Once you have T1D, you are dependent on insulin, either via injection or insulin pump for the rest of your life.
Its victims must constantly live in a dangerous balancing game between diet, exercise and monitoring blood sugar levels. Insulin pumps, small devices that regularly infuse insulin into the body, are not a cure: one must still test his blood sugar and make sure it’s working properly. Joel’s mother, Roma, wrote in a statement that it appears the line from the insulin pump had become disconnected; apparently Joel didn’t realize it and suffered a diabetic seizure.
Besides seizures, people with T1D face the risk of kidney failure, blindness, nerve damage, amputation, heart attack, stroke and complications to pregnancy.
Once, about ten years or so ago, I got a call from Joel. He didn’t sound like himself, and asked if I would take him to the hospital. I rushed to his home and found him stumbling around as if he were drunk. By the time we arrived at the emergency room, he nearly passed out. When they tested his blood sugar, it read 515. One’s blood sugar should be below 100. Apparently, the line coming from the pump had developed a crimp, preventing the insulin from reaching his body. He was lucky that he was able to call someone.
This time, even with Lola, a therapy dog trained to be alert to a human’s blood sugar balance, he wasn’t able to recognize the malfunction of his insulin point in time to prevent the fatal seizure. We are told that when he didn’t report to work on Tuesday, after calling in sick on Monday, his employer called police and asked them to check on him. They found Joel lying on the floor of his apartment.
Lola was by his side. (Damn it…I can’t say that out loud or even type it out without tearing up.)
I don’t mean to scare anyone who faces this diagnosis. Really.
Despite his death at only 39, Joel lead an active life. He was happy, otherwise healthy. He was an incredibly kind, loving guy who made a huge mark on those who were lucky enough to call him a friend.
But I think Joel would want me to tell you that it’s important that everyone understand that this is a very serious condition that cannot be ignored, even for a second.
When I was sitting with Joel in the hospital room the next day, he mentioned that his roommate had been out of town at the time, and that it made him a little uneasy to be alone at night. If something were to go wrong with his blood sugar, he told me, his roommate would at least know something was wrong and be able to get him some help.
I remember thinking at that time what a terrible fear to have to live with on a daily basis. Joel wasn’t a hypochondriac — that’s my area of expertise, thank you — so when he said it, I knew the fear was genuine. And as it tragically turned out, not unreasonable.
I wish with all my heart that it was Joel writing this post, about to list warning signs that everyone should know to watch for. Would that it were so.
Warning signs can appear suddenly and include:
- Extreme thirst
- Frequent urination
- Drowsiness or lethargy
- Increased appetite
- Sudden weight loss
- Sudden vision changes
- Sugar in the urine
- Fruity odor on the breath
- Heavy or labored breathing
- Stupor or unconsciousness
Please take these symptoms seriously. Doing so could literally save your life or the life of someone close to you.
Let’s not let this monster of a disease claim one more loved one. Ever.