Happy Birthday, diabetes – by Olly Double
He was well under two when he started getting ill. He was guzzling water like there was no tomorrow and peeing so frequently that his nappies bulged unfeasibly. The weight fell off him, his face eventually getting that skull-like tightness you see in photos of famine victims. Then he started getting diarrhoea and vomiting. Jacqui had a look in a book of childhood illnesses and the chart she found fitted his symptoms perfectly – diabetes. However, due to a series of cock-ups that we never finally got to the bottom of, he was misdiagnosed as having gastroenteritis.
This was sort of a relief, except that he kept getting thinner and his symptoms kept getting worse. Jacqui consulted doctor after doctor, and became aware that she was being seen as a paranoid parent. It was only her bloody-minded determination that eventually got yet another doctor to eventually come out and see him. When this latest doctor gave Tom a finger prick test, his blood sugar was so high that it went off the scale and later, when it was properly tested in hospital, it was over 60 mmol/L. He was so skinny and wretched by this point that the medics found it impossible to get into his veins to start rehydrating him, and had to go into his jugular.
Initially, he responded well to the treatment, but I remember how confused and depressed I felt about the whole thing when we were told he had diabetes. I had all the questions in my head that people who don’t have to deal with diabetes – let’s call them civilians – always come out with. Was it bad diabetes? Would he grow out of it? The answers to these being, respectively, ‘there’s no other kind’ and ‘no’.
Then there were complications and things changed for the worse, largely because he it had taken so long for him to be diagnosed and start being treated. If only one of the doctors who had seen him had bothered to do a finger prick test or test his urine for glucose, this could have been avoided. I don’t want to revisit this part of the story at this point, but suffice it to say that we were very close to losing Tom and he had to be taken to Guy’s Hospital by a retrieval team in the middle of the night.
Once he was out of the woods and starting to get a bit better, we took him home with us. In many ways it was like having a newborn again. We couldn’t leave the house without tons of equipment, and we had to kiss goodbye to having a good night’s sleep. He was on mixed insulins for the first few years. I know a few people seem to manage to use these and get good blood sugar levels, but Tom’s were all over the place for the whole of his early childhood. The body is a complex system, and the way it produces insulin to match food, exercise and mood is miraculous and extremely complicated. Trying to replicate that with two injections of insulin a day is a bit like trying to type with boxing gloves on. It’s really difficult – look what happens if you try it:
Add to that the fact that his night time dosage was initially far more than he needed, and you’ll see why we found ourselves sitting up with him at 2am trying to coax him into eating an enormous bowl of Cheerios. And all of this in the build-up to Christmas.
Things have changed a lot since then. The technology gets better all the time, and his blood sugar control improved massively when he went on to an insulin pump in 2008. Using a pump is like trying to type with surgical gloves on – still harder than typing normally, but a hell of a lot better than trying to do it in boxing gloves.
Every year at around this time, we tend to crack open a bottle of sparkling wine to toast the fact that Tom’s still with us, and the fact that we’ve been able to watch him grow into the happy, confident, and delightfully eccentric boy he now is. We did that this weekend, and as it’s the tenth anniversary, we’ll probably do the same again next weekend.
Happy birthday, diabetes.