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Give & Take: National Diabetes Awareness Month

Ember Larregui   Follow

When I was 11, I went to the hospital for a very simple reason: to get an x-ray.

A few weeks prior, I had fallen down in gym class. The pain in my lower back was bad, but subsided pretty quickly. It was the few other times after that, when I had fallen down again and again, each time getting the same quick flash of pain in my lower back, that I knew something was wrong. I didn’t know exactly what was wrong, however. Both my family and I knew that a quick trip to the doctor would give us the answers we needed.

Turns out, I was right — something was wrong — but I had no idea just how much it was about to completely change my life.

On that fateful day, the doctors and nurses checked my blood glucose levels, and realized they were extraordinarily high, much more than they should be for someone my age who was presumably healthy. They kept me for the day and put me on an IV, and when my glucose level still didn’t go down, they had their answer: I was a Type 1 Diabetic.

I don’t remember exactly what the moment we found out was like, but I do remember the shock I felt afterwards. The surprise as my family and I looked at each other, feeling like this had come out of nowhere. But as the doctor recounted the symptoms usually experienced by undiagnosed diabetics, we realized that it had been there, quietly looming in the background of my life for an entire year leading up to that moment. Days of being severely tired and dehydrated, feeling random moments of numbness in my fingers and toes, and so much more that we had not noticed as a sign of a bigger problem.

The hospital let us go after a day of observation, and from there I kept moving. At first, not much had changed. Diabetics often go through what’s called a “honeymoon phase” where they feel the symptoms, but cannot yet start insulin therapy. For months after the original diagnoses, I could feel it looming again but had no recourse of action.

By the time July rolled around, I was in a good place to officially begin taking insulin. Life adjusted again, and I had to tell all my classmates and teachers about what was going on and deal with the many questions for which I didn’t have the answers.

As months and years passed, I kept moving — transitioning from insulin pen needles to an automated pump, which delivers insulin at the press of a button. I went to high school and then college, constantly adjusting my life to make sure my diabetes and my health were prioritized. I talked about it to anyone who was interested enough to ask, because I always felt there was so much misunderstanding about what diabetes is and what it realistically looks like.

Ultimately, I hit what’s called “diabetic burnout”, which is when the physical and emotional cost of constantly managing your diabetes really starts to take a toll. I was tired of the physical symptoms of having my blood sugar levels play ping pong, spending days going from extreme highs to extreme lows and back and forth again. I felt defeated at the prospect that I would be living with diabetes for the rest of my life. With no cure, diabetes is a chronic illness that can overtake your health if left untreated as you age. Over the years I had only been hospitalized twice for diabetes-related issues, but both were serious enough to leave a lasting impression on what my future could look like if I didn’t start taking care of myself again.

I leaned on my support system, my friends and family, and slowly things started looking up again. I started a new insulin pump system where, once connected with a continuous glucose monitor, the pump decides how much insulin to deliver in real time depending on what your blood sugar level is. I’ve been on the system for almost a year, and for the first time in a long-time, I’ve been able to confidently manage my diabetes with little surprises.

November is National Diabetes Awareness Month, a time intended to highlight the more than 37 million diabetics across the country. 1 in 10 Americans currently live with the disease, and even more staggeringly, 1 in 5 don’t even realize they have it. If you’re a non-diabetic, there are plenty of ways to get involved: fundraising; donating to organizations such as the American Diabetes Association or the JDRF; taking the time to learn more about the illness itself. 

But one of the most impactful ways is to ask your friends and family who live with diabetes how they are doing, and listen and take to heart their stories and their experiences.

My story with diabetes has been long and eventful, and has no end in sight. But as time has passed, I feel lucky for how many people have been by my side to learn and help me live with the disease. I am optimistic about my health, and the resources I have to help me manage diabetes while still living my life normally.

In a few months, I’ll be celebrating my 13th anniversary of being a Type 1 Diabetic. Looking back, I can only be grateful for the experiences I’ve had and the lessons it’s taught me – and I look forward to spending another 13 more both happy and healthy.

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