If you were to eavesdrop on people with diabetes for a day, you’d be sure to hear the language of rising and falling. “My blood sugar is skyrocketing right now.” “Oh really? I rage bolused earlier and I’m in a freefall. Double arrows down.” “Not me, I’ve been riding high all day.”
Living with diabetes is always an exercise in trying to create a rewarding, happy life while soaring and plummeting – and hopefully sometimes floating – between the rumble lines of our target ranges. When we encounter other people with diabetes, like skydiver Dennis Adair who pushes life out to the edges, it reminds us that our own dreams can soar higher than any meter can register.
Dennis was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as a young child in 1956. He discovered his passion at the age of 48 and since then has been on more than 1,700 skydiving jumps. If it flies, he’s jumped from it.
When did you start skydiving?
I took my first skydive on a beautiful sunny day in July 2001 to celebrate my 48th birthday. It was a total surprise that my wife, Marguerite, got me a tandem skydive for a birthday present.
The day started out as any other day, when Marguerite came and said “I have a surprise for you. You need to get dressed in long comfortable pants and a casual shirt.” She wrapped a blindfold around my eyes so I would have no idea where we were going. The blindfold stayed on for about 20 minutes until we arrived at the airport. They then walked me for about 50 or 60 yards until we got to a reception place where I heard many people laughing and carrying on, but I had no idea where we were and what we were doing there. Then they took the blindfold off and stood in front of me and a man said, “So are you ready to jump out of a perfectly good airplane?”
When we leapt out of the plane into the air, I could feel myself come alive, the wind blowing in my face. We were going terminal velocity – a hundred and twenty miles per hour. Once the tandem master pulled the rip cord, we spent about five minutes looking at the beautiful Susquehanna River in Maytown, Pennsylvania. What a beautiful site! That was the start. That’s what got me hooked.
People are probably shocked in general when you say you skydive, but skydiving with type 1?
I told every single person I came in contact with that I had started to skydive. People who knew me would congratulate me, but they would look at me and ask if I should really be doing that with my condition. It was the year 2001, but people still had those thoughts and beliefs that you are not a normal person because you have diabetes. People have always said to me, “you should do this or don’t do that. And if you knew what was good for you…”
I knew it was because they cared about me, but it was as though they were saying that I was less than anyone else, or that I didn’t know how to take care of myself. Because of our diabetes we could not run, we could not play, we cannot do sports, we had to eat certain foods, we had to take care of ourselves, or we were limited in what we could do. It was the prevailing thought for a long time. I have spent my entire life trying to dispel those perceptions. I can do anything they can do, and better!
How do you prepare for a jump? Do you check your blood glucose levels more frequently or aim for certain blood sugar targets before a jump?
Like any athlete before an event you have to get your muscles in shape and stretch. As a diabetic, I had to make sure that my blood sugars were elevated higher, so I would test before each skydive and sometimes after. Because I am completely hypoglycemia unaware, I am very cautious before each and every jump.
Once, I tested my blood sugar before a jump and it was 150 mg/dL. We then practiced the jump in our formation and waited and waited and waited for the plane. Finally it came, we boarded, and we did our jump, but as I was coming in for a landing I noticed I was seeing double. I had blurred vision so I closed one eye to help correct the blurred vision and came in for a perfect landing. I then got my parachute and walked to where I could do a blood test and found that my blood sugar level was 45 mg/dL. From then on, I tried to keep my blood sugar level at 180 mg/dL before each jump.
You are using all of your senses during a jump. You’re excited, your heart is racing, and you’re expending more energy. You are carrying a parachute that weighs 25 pounds and practicing for half hour at a time before the plane arrives, so you’re burning glucose off rapidly. It’s not easy, but you compensate for it. I eat crackers, I have snacks, and I make sure my energy level is up.
What tools do you use to manage your diabetes – in the air and on the ground?
I’ve been on an insulin pump since March 1983 and so I think nothing of wearing my pump on each and every skydive. I’ve never taken it off. It’s just part of me.
I might get to the drop zone at 9:00 a.m. and leave sometimes at 9:30 p.m. after a full day of skydiving. I have two basal settings on my insulin pump – my standard and my skydiving basal rate that accounts for the increased activity all day long.
In July 2007, I got the continuous glucose monitoring system for my insulin pump. This is fantastic. It has made all the difference in the world. I can see what my blood sugar is doing all the time and can adjust my activity or my food intake at any moment of the day.
You’ve had diabetes for over half a century. What’s your message to people living with diabetes today?
As I look back over the past 58 years being a diabetic, I see I have never let it stop me from doing anything that was possible for me to do. We have come along way in the diabetic community. Now we are able to talk to each other on the Internet and through blogs and really find out that we are normal.
There are those of us who have been around long enough to remember sharpening our needles, sterilizing them in alcohol, making sure our syringe – our glass syringe – was clean, testing our urine with a test tube and a pill – doing all those things and still passing out from hypo episodes.
A lot has changed. We now count carbs instead of calories. We now test our blood instead of our urine. But over these past 58 years, I think the greatest technology that has come our way has been the insulin pump and, the second part, the continuous glucose monitoring system.
What are your hopes for the future of diabetes care?
I am now waiting anxiously in great anticipation for the next generation of insulin pumps – pumps that will deliver insulin and glucagon, pumps controlled by a smart phone. I believe from what I read that we could see it in the next five years. It’s not a cure, but it’s the next great thing.
My doctors told my mother and me when I was a young boy that age 35 would be a good life expectancy. I was determined to make each day count in my life. That is what keeps me going – knowing that each day is very precious.
*Photos by Terry Ross at Maytown Sports Parachuting Club.