Finger prickin’ good: or why learning from experience can be a pain – by Emma Hetherington

When I joined Diabetes UK as the new Head of Content & News three months ago, I had no idea that within weeks I’d d be sticking needles into my body up to ten times a day. In fact the whole of my team were doing it too – and willingly.

This wasn’t some strange initiation into the charity but an inspired approach to giving us a small insight into what it’s like for thousands of people who have Type 1 diabetes. Of the 4 million people in the UK diagnosed with diabetes, around 10 per cent live with Type 1. One of my colleagues (who herself has Type 1) compared the relentlessness of managing this condition to “the film Groundhog Day…..but without Bill Murray”.

For writers and content producers like us, gaining some personal insights into living with the condition could only help us do what we do better in our Type 1 communications.

Living with Type 1 for a week

Having been taught the basics of the condition by our Head of Care (and diabetes nurse) Dan Howarth, we were presented with our own blood glucose testing kits, insulin pens and tracking sheets. The plan was that we were all going to ‘live’ with Type 1 diabetes for a whole week.

Dan taught us how to prick our fingers with lancets to measure our blood glucose levels before and after eating. He showed us how use the testing strips and read our monitors; how to count the carbs in our meals; how to adjust our post-meal insulin doses and how to inject the insulin pen into our stomach or legs (the pens we used contained only sterilised water not insulin) to administer the right dose in the most effective way.

Hypos included

He even took our mobile phone numbers and warned us he would randomly text us to tell us when we were ‘having a hypo’ – just as random as this can be in real life. When a message came through, we had to stop what we were doing for 10 minutes and find a sugary snack or drink to help correct what would, in reality, be a drop in our blood glucose levels.

What we didn’t expect…

We knew this experience was never going to properly prove to us what it’s really like to manage Type 1 every day for the rest of your life. But even this small snapshot over a week did drive home to all of us just how much is involved. And not just the constant counting and calculating or the planning for hypos and carrying your kit with you all the time. There were so many realisations:

    • Where do you inject at work? Luckily the loos at Diabetes UK are reasonably nice but a toilet isn’t always the most pleasant space for this personal of procedures. And space is often limited for opening up your blood glucose testing kit and insulin pen. Yuk….


    • Eating out. It’s challenging enough counting carbs in foods you eat at home but try finding the carbs in a restaurant pizza? Even though many national chains do provide nutritional guidance online, it’s not much help when the internet connection on your phone is down.


    • Down the pub. When your friend mistakenly gets you a vodka and ‘full fat’ coke rather than a diet coke, what do you do? The impact on your blood glucose levels is pretty immediate. Do you refuse the drink? Do you top up your insulin? Do you make your friend get you the right mixer?


    • What if you’re terrified of needles? A few in our team were. Of course we all realise that if they’d really had Type 1 diabetes, they would just have had to power through it ….


No to needles, no problem

Let me just say that anyone in the team who did feel too squeamish to actually stick needles into their body was under no obligation to do it. All that Dan asked was that they went through the motions right up until moment of the needle going in – so that they would still get a sense of the amount of monitoring and effort that goes into the daily management of Type 1 diabetes for thousands of people in the UK.

Will finger pricking soon be a thing of the past?

While most of us did go through with the whole needle thing, the great news is it now looks as if finger-prick testing may soon become much less of an issue for thousands of people with Type 1 diabetes. Flash technology is already helping to make blood glucose testing less intrusive and much easier than ever before. And thanks to the campaigning of Diabetes UK and its supporters, the Government has agreed that this tech – the device is called the FreeStyleLibre – can be made available for free on the NHS

One Diabetes UK’s supporter, Adrian, who has paid for one himself for the last two years, is testament to how it changes lives. Although he now checks his levels more than 20 times a day, he loves the fact that most of the time you’d probably never notice he’s doing it. And he reports he has better control over his management of the condition too.

While the NHS has agreed that this tech can be offered for free, it’s now up to local health decision makers to agree local policies around who can access it. That means we need to keep up the fight to make it available to all. You can still help us make a difference by joining our campaign to make sure that you or someone you know can get a Flash monitor on the NHS if they want one.

And hopefully in the future any new joiners to my team won’t need to spend a week sticking needles in their fingers all day – because this won’t be the experience of most people with Type 1 diabetes either.

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