Diabetes complications – I never thought they would happen to me

James shares his experience of diabetes complications – to encourage other people with diabetes to take better care of themselves.

I was a typical 12-year-old lad, who was into football in a very big way and not keen on school. I was also extremely slim. In fact, ‘more meat on a butcher’s pencil’ was often the term used to describe my build. From the age of 10 I seemed to suffer from every illness going: colds, stomach bugs and infections – and this seemed to be the start of my downfall. Two years later I was in hospital after collapsing on the football pitch, weighing just five stone. It was then that I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. That’s brilliant, I thought, no more sweets and I’ve got to inject. To be honest I don’t think I realised how poorly I was; being so slight and frail with extremely high sugars in my urine and producing ketones.

I had to learn how to draw up insulin and inject, and how to test my urine (blood testing devices were not freely available in the early 80s). I was also put on a strict diet, with all my foods now weighed and measured out, and my only luxury being diabetic chocolate. However, the trouble with diabetic chocolate in that era is that it was full of sorbitol, which is a laxative. But being the age of 12, I decided to eat the whole bar and then play football. It’s fair to say I suffered the consequences.

Over the years I found it difficult to get my diabetes under control, even when I eventually received a blood testing device (which was the size and weight of a house brick). This helped a lot but if I had high blood sugars, the only way to get them down was by exercising. There was nothing like corrections with insulin – that didn’t arrive until much later – and I was only on two injections per day. However, I found that being physically fit and active throughout my life has helped me and my diabetes.

First signs

It was roughly in my late twenties that the complications started in my hands, with pins and needles that drove me up the wall. I had to undergo surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome and trigger finger. My hands were then bandaged for several weeks and this was followed by physiotherapy. Another complication followed soon after that was probably even worse; my shoulder started to become stiff and extremely painful, and I was diagnosed as having a diabetic frozen shoulder. Once again I needed surgery to resolve the problem. I remember waking up from the anaesthetic and the pain being unbearable. It’s something I will never forget.

However, my health started to improve and I was invited to undertake the DAFNE course. I can honestly say that this education changed my life – if only it had been around in the early 1980s! My blood sugars were a lot better and I had my dream job working at a professional football club. I also studied for my NEBOSH qualifications in health and safety.

Foot problems

Unfortunately this wasn’t going to last. While at work one day a stone got into my shoe, but due to the lack of sensation in my feet I didn’t feel it rubbing against my toe. This resulted in a huge blister that turned into a nasty foot ulcer. I was advised to give up work so my foot could heal, but I didn’t do this, as I loved the job that I’d worked so hard to get. Plus, financially I couldn’t afford to stop working. We tried everything to heal the foot ulcer, but just before my 40th birthday my toe was in agony and I was admitted to hospital. I was told the toe was beyond repair and had to be amputated. After the surgery the consultants noticed a rapid change in the shape of my feet, however this wasn’t due to diabetes. I was diagnosed with a muscle wasting disease known as Charcot-Marie-Tooth, which meant very testing times ahead.

Eye trouble

Not long after coming out of hospital, the next complication hit me – and hit me hard. I woke one night and could see black floaters in my eyes, which really panicked me. I ended up in eye casualty the next morning as I could hardly see out of either eye. I was informed by the consultants that I needed to let my eyes settle down in order to clear for laser treatment. I eventually underwent a significant amount of laser treatment, but it was also recommended that I had a vitrectomy on both eyes. The procedure helped my sight a lot, but I lost my night vision and peripheral vision, too. However, this really was a small price to pay in order to keep my eyesight.

So that’s my diabetic story in a small portion. I’m often asked whether I knew about the possible complications of diabetes when I was diagnosed. The answer is that I was aware of some complications, but I never thought it would happen to me. I also wasn’t aware of how quickly they can hit you and how devastating they can be. When I was diagnosed there was no internet or social media, meaning it was a lot harder to research.

My advice to anyone with diabetes is to take care of yourself, keep on top of your blood sugars, and in my opinion, exercise is a must. Live your life to the full but never forget that you have a serious condition that can have serious consequences.

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