I got diabetes twice. Once when I was 11, and the second time when I was 42. It took the second time to show me all that I’d learned from it the first time around.
When I was 40 years old I had a unique opportunity to take part in a clinical trial to cure type 1 diabetes by receiving an islet cell transplant. Islet cells are the actual engines of insulin production in a pancreas. By transplanting islet cells into my liver it was hoped they would function like islet cells do in a person without diabetes, and I would be cured of the condition that had defined a great deal of my life for almost 30 years.
Of course, given the opportunity cure type 1 diabetes, to eradicate the condition causing me to take insulin injections twice a day, causing me to black out a few times a year, destroying my fingertips with blood sugar testing, and generally making my life unpleasant and inconvenient on one side of the scale and a living hell on the other, I leapt at it. I signed on the dotted line of a consent form even though the list of potential and life-threatening complications was long. I would have to take immunosuppressant drugs, just like any other organ transplant recipient. These drugs offered massively increased risks of cancer and heart disease. But, I thought, diabetes already offers massively increased risk of heart disease, with the additional bonus risks of blindness, amputation, kidney failure, and just about any other permutation of sickness that could be named. There were also unknown and unknowable risks from the transplant. This was, after all, experimental. In addition, I was told that the transplant just simply might not work. The last warning made me laugh because if it failed, what would happen? I would still have diabetes. So? I was not impressed by the possibility of failure.
Some months after the second of two transplants I made a ham sandwich and, on my own without consulting my doctors, didn’t take insulin to counteract the food. I tested every five minutes afterward, it seemed. I felt like a kid with a test tube and a Bunsen burner prepping for the science fair and needing to try the experiment one more time to make double sure it would work. It worked. I was, for all intents and purposes, cured of diabetes.
After that, a strange thing happened: Nothing. I did not go out and eat a chocolate Easter bunny. I didn’t sit with gallons of Ben & Jerry’s and sample myself into a gait-altering weight gain. I didn’t gorge at McDonald’s, or drink a pony keg of Pabst Blue Ribbon with no cares for testing my blood sugar, or for high sugars, or for having my blood sugar crash out into crippling hypoglycemia in the middle of the night. That’s because even though I didn’t have diabetes, I was still a diabetic. That was not only because I still tested my blood sugar several times a day, per the requirements of the study. It was just who I was, and who I continued to be. I still ran, and was training for a marathon. I ate a normal, healthy diet. And, most importantly, I continued monitoring my health constantly in my mind, noticing what was happening with my body, and adjusting as needed. This is something, I realized, that people without diabetes miss out on by not doing. They, instead, take their bodies for granted. They allow, and sometimes cause things to happen to their bodies then make adjustments to counteract what is happening. Diabetics, on the other hand, are proactive. They try to make things happen to their bodies, then listen to whether or not that thing is taking place, and finally make adjustments afterward if it’s not. This is a better, healthier, and happier way to live one’s life.
Years earlier, I was in the hospital after a hypoglycemic episode put me into a coma. Before leaving for home, my doctor, knowing I ran marathons, walked me across the hall one night to meet a triathlete who had been hospitalized after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes that weekend. I shook his hand and, as a mere marathoner meeting a triathlete, joked, “I’m not worthy.” I then said how sorry I was he’d been diagnosed with diabetes.
“Oh no,” he said. “I see this as one of the best things that ever happened to me. I was slacking, you know, not eating right, drinking a few too many beers, not sleeping right. Now, if I do any of that I’ll pay a price; I’ll pay it with my life. I don’t want that. I have to pay attention. This is going to make my running and my swimming and my biking and my entire life, a whole lot better.”
Almost two years after my transplant the islet cells in my liver began to die. Within two more months I was back taking two shots of insulin a day. However, I did not feel like Robert DeNiro after he descends back into a catatonic state after having been awakened at the end of the movie Awakenings. I did not feel like the main character in Flowers for Algernon, who reverts to mental retardation after a period of high intelligence following an experimental treatment. Instead, I felt more like the triathlete I met at Tucson General Hospital and realized my entire life might be a whole lot better as a result of living it as a diabetic.
Alex O’Meara is a regular contributor to ASweetLife. He writes the blog The Other Side of Diabetes.