Julia Warner will tell you that surviving diabetes takes balance and consistency.
She should know — the Logansport resident has made it 64 years with diabetes.
Warner, who in 2012 received medals from both the Joslin Diabetes Center and Eli Lilly and Co. for having lived with diabetes for at least 50 years, was diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder just two months shy of her second birthday.
“The ambulance was called since I had less than an hour to get to Indianapolis,” said Warner, now 66. “I was going into a diabetic coma.”
Her blood sugar level was nearly 10 times what it should be. As the emergency vehicle raced from Logansport to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, Warner’s father pushed the dashboard button for the siren while her mother stayed with her in the rear of the ambulance.
“Bob [Powell, the driver] said we would make it, and by the grace of God we did,” Warner said.
Once young Warner was admitted and stabilized, her mother stayed with her in the hospital room, learning to care for her child. “It was diet, schedule, exercise,” Warner said.
Warner’s family helped her weigh each item of food she ate at strict mealtimes, to ensure she didn’t over- or under-consume foods that would hike her blood sugar. Daily tests helped her parents determine the amount of sugar in her body. Her mother would administer regular doses of insulin, as well.
Warner was diagnosed with the less common type of diabetes, type 1. According to a fact sheet published by Logansport Memorial Hospital, about 90 percent to 95 percent of cases of diabetes are type 2, in which the body doesn’t efficiently use its insulin, which helps convert sugar to energy. Just 5 percent to 10 percent of cases are type 1, in which the body produces no insulin at all. People with type 1 diabetes must rely on daily insulin injections to live.
“I always remember doing it,” said Warner. “I started taking my own shots the summer I was 5 years old.”
It’s unknown exactly what puts a person at greater risk to develop type 1 diabetes, according to Karen Shidler, a certified diabetes educator at Logansport Memorial Hospital.
“If you have a first-degree relative with type 1 diabetes” — that is, a parent or sibling — “you’re at a little greater risk, but not much,” Shidler said.
A study of near relatives of people with type 1 diabetes is currently under way to try to find out more, she said. “They’re finding that people have these antibodies that are eventually going to destroy the cells in the pancreas” that produce insulin, “even years before they develop type 1 diabetes.”
Most cases of type 1 diabetes start in childhood, usually around 12 or 13 years of age, Shidler said, but some adults develop the disorder, too, such as Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.
If it’s not controlled, diabetes causes problems like high blood sugar or high blood pressure. Both damage a person’s blood vessels.
“The more glucose [blood sugar] that’s stuck on those red blood cells, the stiffer they become. Think about anything candy-coated,” illustrated Shidler. It’s a particular problem in tiny blood vessels in the heart, kidneys, eyes and toes. “Unfortunately diabetes is the leading cause of new cases of blindness.”
While Warner no longer has her sight, it’s only indirectly related to diabetes. At 23 years old, she underwent a laser treatment to try to reverse some of the deterioration that had started happening in the blood vessels in her eyes. The treatment went wrong, and instead, the laser burned a hole in her retina. Her visual impairment worsened over about three years, during which time “I learned to slow down and not do everything so quickly,” she said.
Her husband has been a great support, said Warner, helping her maintain her strict mealtimes and exercise. Friends help her out, too. “So I’ve got an army behind me — the cavalry,” she said, chuckling.
Medical technology has made it easier to monitor and regulate her blood sugar level. For her insulin shots, she went from steel needles, which she sharpened herself on a whetstone, and glass syringes — all of which she had to boil to keep them sterile — to disposable needles and now to a “pen” that she uses to dispense a precise amount of insulin.
Shidler, who has just finished her master’s degree in diabetes education and management, noted that several varieties of insulin “pens” exist. “You just dial the dose. They’re much easier to learn to use and carry with you,” she said. They also allow people with diabetes to take their doses discreetly when they’re eating out.
Automatic insulin pumps, used instead of needles or “pens,” have come into more widespread use since the heavy “blue brick,” as those familiar with an early pump called it, came out in the 1970s. Continuous blood sugar monitors have also become more common over the last five years as private insurance companies started covering their cost.
Researchers are trying for an artificial pancreas — more or less combining the insulin pump and the continuous blood sugar monitor — that will automatically respond to high or low blood sugar and adjust the insulin injections accordingly.
Until then, Warner encourages those with diabetes to keep on keeping on.
“Through it all I’m not throwing in the rag,” continued Warner. “I’m not going to get upset or stressed.”
After all, “it raises your sugar,” she said, smiling.
Sarah Einselen is news editor at the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-732-5151.
Find out more about diabetes Logansport Memorial Hospital hosts a support group every other month for people with diabetes. It meets at 1 p.m. the second Wednesday of odd months. The next meeting is at 1 p.m. Sept. 11. The hospital also provides other diabetes education resources. For more information, call Karen Shidler, RN, CDE, at 574-753-1339. Join the TrialNet Type 1 Diabetes TrialNet is an international network of researchers who are exploring ways to prevent, delay and reverse the progression of type 1 diabetes. Researchers are conducting clinical trials for people newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes or for their relatives. Riley Hospital for Children is a participating institution, but blood work for the trial can be done locally. For more information, call 1-800-425-8361 or visit www.diabetestrialnet.org.