I was in eighth grade when I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. All I knew about diabetes then was that it was disease older people got. I wasn’t even really sure what being a diabetic meant. And surely there was a diabetes cure, anything except taking shots every day and being on a strict diet.
My parents, although they were strong and they supported me every step of the way, also had a difficult time with my diagnosis. My father was frightened by the idea of giving me injections. He said, “If something happens you better hope your mother is near.” I was afraid of needles, too. Because we had no choice, my parents and I did what we had to do. I was managing diabetes the best I could, at least at first. As I grew into my teens, I became more independent and more careless. I wanted to eat, I wanted to party with my friends and drink. I did not have time to monitor my blood sugar. The last thing I wanted to think about was diabetes management. There was simply no way I could set aside the few minutes a day to manage diabetes. Besides, I had insulin so I could just eat whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, as long as I injected.
I was living life on my terms. I spat in the eye of diabetes and thought I was doing well. Then I was diagnosed with testicular cancer at the age of 21. After months of chemotherapy and surgery, the cancer was in remission. I had survived. What was diabetes compared to that? Nothing. I treated my diabetes like a bother, not like a serious illness. Five years later the cancer returned. After a second surgery, I had been cured again. I felt cocky, like I was a scientific marvel. I ruled the world. I lived like that for a long time. I didn’t think about diabetes management. Then I got slapped in the face by reality, or more specifically, by diabetes.
In May of 2011 I experienced diabetic ketoacidosis. There was not enough insulin in my body to use sugar for energy, so my body began to burn fat which, in turn, produced toxic ketones. I was in the hospital for a few days. You would think that would have woken me up to the seriousness of diabetes. You would be wrong. After my release from the hospital I kept up with my diabetes management for about a month. Then I went back to my old ways. Things seemed okay for a little while.
In December 2011, I was taking improv classes and performed a physical skit. I landed on my foot awkwardly and heard a snap. It felt fine that night but I woke the next morning to find it swollen and in pain. It took about a month before I finally went to a doctor about it because I just started at a new job and did not have health insurance. My foot had not completely healed. The doctor put my foot into a sandal that restricted movement in the foot and toes, but I was able to walk in it. That wasn’t enough, though, and I needed to get a real cast.
About a month after I had the cast put on, a friend noticed the cast was gouging into my small toe. I hadn’t felt anything, but when I saw my toe, I completely freaked out. I went to the E.R. The doctor who saw me was puzzled by the fact that I was in a cast and he deemed it unnecessary. When the cast was off, I saw my fear was justified. My toe was infected. I lay in the bed in the E.R. just staring at my foot. I was worried that they would have to – at the very least – amputate the toe. I began to think of the last 20 careless years of diabetes management and I started to beat myself up. I had erred and I prayed to God and promised not to take my life for granted if he just gave me one more chance. Let me prove it to him and others I loved in my life that I could turn this around.
The doctor did not surprise me when he told me how bad my diabetes was. He was shocked that I was not in a coma. My HbA1c was 13.4%.
I ended up keeping my toe and I decided to keep up my end of the deal with God. In the hospital, I was put on a diet and a new insulin regimen. I kissed my past goodbye and decided to be healthy for the first time in my life. I had never been so scared of diabetes before but I knew that I needed to be. I needed to acknowledge that if ignored, this disease would take my life. I became focused on living with diabetes and not suffering from it. I learned the hard way that it is never too late to be healthy. And ignoring diabetes was not fair to myself or those who loved me.
My new way of life is not easy, and sometimes I wish I could satisfy my hunger, but I do not want to slip into my old habits. Every day I am learning something about myself and this disease. I still have a long way to go but I am putting great effort into managing diabetes. The road to health is worth the walk, and I am grateful to be walking it with all ten of my toes.
Patrick O’Hara is a comedian in Chicago and a graduate of the Second City training class. He has been a diabetic for 20 years, but has only recently begun to take it seriously. He writes about diabetes for Chicago Now http://www.chicagonow.com/bad-diabetic/ and hopes to inspire others to take good care of themselves.