Living Well with Type 1 Diabetes: 50 Years of Resilience and Triumph

Brenda’s journey with Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong one, marked by overcoming many obstacles in an impressive way.

Together with her family and MedicAlert, she has traveled a lot of territory since her diagnosis as an infant, and she shares her personal story of living well with Type 1 diabetes (T1D).

Grandmother with two grandchildren

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T1D journey

Brenda tells how her uncle first noticed something was off during a visit, telling her mom that “something is wrong with this kid!” That was the Saturday evening of January 6, 1968. “‘Oh, she’s just teething,’ my mother responded. ‘As long as her pacifier stays wet, she’s fine.’”

Brenda continues, “The next day I collapsed in my mother’s arms. My parents called my doctor, who said to go to the ER in Springfield OR, a few miles from our house. We were soon at the hospital where, on January 7, at age 11 months and with a blood glucose level of 1040, I was diagnosed with juvenile onset diabetes.” To treat her dangerously high blood glucose, “Mom said they shaved the front part of my head and put IVs there to get the blood sugar down.”

Brenda says that her mom opted to raise her as a vegetarian, despite her pediatrician’s protests that diabetics need protein from meat. She shares, “A couple years later he said, ‘Don’t change what you’re doing. She is my healthiest patient!’” Along with that recommendation, Brenda says that sometime before her third birthday, he also recommended that she wear a MedicAlert bracelet for added protection in any emergencies caused by diabetes complications. “I’ve worn that emblem since,” Brenda proudly explained.

Balancing blood sugar levels

Brenda’s first insulin was Lilly U-40, which she says cost 75 cents per bottle in 1968. “Both of my parents and my grandmother learned how to give injections to me,” Brenda shares. “My arms were used the first five years, until I developed lipoatrophy and at my doctor’s suggestion injections were changed to the stomach. I was not sure I wanted a shot in my tummy!”

She recalls her first injection using this method: “We were at my grandparents’ house, and Grandma and Dad held me down as I was crying, and Mom gave the first injection in my tummy. Oh! That wasn’t so bad!!

Facts About

Unlike some other forms of diabetes, there is currently no known way to prevent Type 1 diabetes.

T1D is an autoimmune disease where the body's immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas.

T1D often develops in childhood or adolescence, but it can occur at any age.

Source: Diabetes.ORG

This was before blood sugar testing was the norm, and Brenda recounts how she would have to check her urine sugar level every morning. “I remember having a ‘test-tube’ and would put so many drops of urine in it with so many drops of water, and then a tablet. It would fizzle and turn color. I also remember having reagent test strips that had to be passed through the urine, which also would turn color.”

Brenda adds, “But urine testing was not that accurate. There would be mornings the color on the test strip or in the test tube would show elevated glucose, but in actuality my glucose would be low; my mother could tell by the way I walked, talked, and acted.”

Support for families with Type 1 diabetes

Under her doctor’s advice, Brenda’s parents did their best to make sure she was treated like any other child. With her MedicAlert ID as added protection in case of a diabetic crisis while away from her parents and grandmother for the first time, she started first grade as a seven-and-a-half-year-old.

This support for families facing Type 1 diabetes meant that Brenda’s internationally recognized MedicAlert ID could be their voice in an emergency, speaking on their behalf even if they were not there to explain her diagnosis and allowing first responders to provide the right care quickly.

Brenda continued to live an active, independent life, spending a week each summer at a church-sponsored summer camp and joining a church youth group on regular outings and camping trips. “No one could have guessed I was diabetic,” she says.

Learning diabetes self-care

“Around age 13, I had another turning point,” Brenda says of her personal diabetes story. “It was then that I finally ‘had the nerve’ to give my own injection.” She also shares that at around age 15, she got her very first glucometer. “No more urine checks. It took two minutes to get a reading,” she explained. Three or four years later, “I got an upgrade, and it took only 20 seconds to get a reading. Wow!”

It wasn’t all injections and tests, though, as Brenda learned to manage long-term diabetes with humor and grace as well. “My younger sister and I still share a silly memory. As kids we would occasionally be away from home for some reason or another, shopping, running errands with Mom. My sister would get hungry and complain. ‘Mom, I’m hungry.’ Mom’s response was, ‘We’ll eat when Brenda’s hungry.’ So Angee would whisper, ‘Brenda, are you hungry?’ ‘No,’… This banter would go on for a few minutes. Finally, I’d say, ‘Yes, I’m kinda hungry.’ Angee would exclaim, ‘Mom!! Brenda’s hungry!! Can we eat now?!?’”

Her track record in managing her diabetes is impressive. “I’ve had only one bout with ketoacidosis. It was 1985 and I was attending boarding high school my senior year with my younger sister. We were eight hours from home. The week before Thanksgiving I ran out of glucose strips and then I got sick with the flu. I figured since I wasn’t eating, I didn’t need insulin. On the way home for vacation, I was hospitalized overnight with a blood glucose of 850.”

Living with Type 1 diabetes

This episode with ketoacidosis was a reminder that emergency scenarios could happen anywhere. But Brenda wasn’t about to let that stop her from continuing to live her dreams. “While in college I had the opportunity to go on a couple short-term mission trips to Mexico and New Mexico. During my second year of college, I decided it was time to fulfill a dream I caught in 6th grade and apply to go as a student missionary the next year to teach elementary school.”

She remembers that it took her 30 minutes to convince a campus doctor to sign off on the application for that trip, because she would be overseas alone. Thankfully, he was willing to let her go, and she explains, “It was 1990 and off I went, with bags of syringes, boxes of glucose strips, and two dozen bottles of insulin. I had a fabulous nine months teaching 1st – 4th graders in the small mission school on the island of Kosrae in the Federated States of Micronesia, located five degrees above the equator in the Pacific Ocean.”

Even then, Brenda was able to rely on her MedicAlert ID to alert others to her Type 1 diabetes should any problems arise. “A couple years later I spent four months in Seoul, South Korea teaching English as a Second Language,” she adds.

I rely on my MedicAlert ID to alert others to my Type 1 diabetes. Because of my ID and protection plan I was able to spend a couple years in Seoul, South Korea teaching English as a Second Language and feel protected.

Diabetes management tips

Brenda continued to do well managing her Type 1 diabetes following her graduation from college in 1993. Now living in Georgia and working as an elementary teacher, she says her parents often worried about her, alone with no watching out for her, especially at night. “But,” she says, “I survived living alone!”

Like many others who have had success with diabetes, Brenda and her physician were monitoring her hemoglobin A1C (HbA1c) levels—a blood test that helps show how well controlled blood glucose levels are over a span of three months. She also exercised regularly to maintain a healthy weight and changed her diet when recommended addressing her blood glucose.

Brenda shares that the biggest difference in her daily life was achieved by the addition of an insulin pump. For individuals with Type 1 diabetes, it’s recommended to maintain a HbA1c less than 7%. Within a few months of adding the insulin pump, Brenda says, “My HbA1c had dropped to below 7%, and I had freedom I didn’t know existed.” Because it’s important that first responders are aware of the use of an insulin pump, Brenda was also able to add this alert to her MedicAlert ID.

Success with Type 1 diabetes

Over the years, Brenda has traveled to 48 states and seven countries, earned a master’s degree, and become a certified scuba diver. Today, she works 40 hours a week, and says “I am widowed and divorced, but have pets, a house and an acre of yard work to keep me busy. My church involvement is very important as a secretary, health ministry leader, church photographer, AV room director, and more. Not much slows me down.”

She notes, “I’m blessed to have no complications. My HbA1c is around 6.5%. I still happily wear my MedicAlert bracelet and insulin pump with continuous glucose monitoring, and now only check my glucose 2-3 times a day, although previously I had checked 10-12 times a day. I still eat a non-dairy vegetarian diet and I am proud to be a healthy diabetic. I pray the next many years will be as good.”

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