Pricks and Needles: What Living With Type 1 Diabetes Is Like

Type 1 diabetes, a rarer form of the chronic disease, affects three million Americans. Here's one of them.

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Anthony Adragna

Back in early 2001, I was a happy, but slightly overweight, 13-year-old boy. Just before the summer I decided to start eating less junk food in hopes of shedding a couple of pounds from my 135-pound frame. I got results quickly -- and my weight kept dropping.

Looking back, the signs that something was amiss were obvious. I couldn't make it through 50-minute class periods in middle school without having to run off and pee. It felt like my thirst could never be satiated. I was always tired. But the weight loss was the most obvious sign.

Weight kept coming off. 125 pounds, 120, 115. My parents called my pediatrician, but diabetes never came up as a potential cause. An unusual teenage growth spurt prior to puberty was a possibility. An eating disorder was also suggested.

By the time I arrived for my annual physical on Nov. 6, 2001, none of my clothes fit and I weighed just 98 pounds -- nearly 30 percent less than my peak weight. More phone calls and doctors' appointments revealed nothing.

Back at home after the appointment, I hopped in the shower but was almost immediately interrupted by my mom. The doctor's office called with results from my blood test and I had to get to the emergency room.

When I checked into the hospital, my blood sugar was 971. The normal range is 80-150. The doctors said I would have fallen into a diabetic coma within another week.

Back then, diabetes seemed like a death sentence. My whole life routine would have to change. I would have to check my blood glucose at least five times a day and stick myself with needles at least four times a day.

But for the past ten years, I've been living with an illness that could shorten my life expectancy by 15 years, affects me every single minute, and is misunderstood by millions of people: type 1 diabetes.


***

Despite the fact that as many as three million Americans suffer from the disease and an additional 80 people are diagnosed daily, the average person probably assumes type 1 is the same as its bigger, health crisis-causing cousin, type 2.

It is not.

Type 2 diabetics cannot generate enough insulin -- the hormone necessary to break down glucose into energy. Even if they do, their body's cells ignore it. Family history of the illness increases the likelihood of getting type 2, though lifestyle plays an important role in the disease's development, which is partly why it's drawn attention in the fight against obesity.

But when a patient develops type 1 diabetes, the body simply stops producing insulin altogether. Science has not definitively confirmed what causes the body to stop making insulin, but researchers believe a combination of genetic predisposition and some environmental trigger ultimately causes the pancreas to stop producing it.

Unlike what most people think, I can eat whatever I want as a type 1 diabetic (not that I should eat everything), but I have to take the proper amount of insulin to compensate for it. I have to count my carbs (not sugar), learning the amount of carbohydrates in all common foods and storing that information like a food encyclopedia in my head.

Diabetes forces me to carefully plan out adventures and travels, but has not prevented me from some pretty amazing physical challenges. I spent my entire junior year of college studying abroad, went on a two-week hiking trip through immense mountain ranges, ran my first 10K last year, and ride my bike 13 miles into work most mornings.

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Anthony Adragna is an environmental reporter for Bloomberg BNA. He has written previously about business in Seattle Business Magazine and about food policy for Foodista.com.

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