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

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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.


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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.

Thankfully, scientific research into the disease has evolved almost as quickly as my lifestyle, for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

As more and more people continue to be diagnosed with type 2, researchers have concentrated their efforts on managing the disease and minimizing complications. New hormones and drugs have been shown to keep blood sugars down and help the body manage insulin more effectively. The Joslin Diabetes Center, one of the world's leading research institutes, has been working on ways to prevent and minimize complications through eye, kidney, and vascular cell biology research.

National discussions on eating better, exercising more, and promoting an overall healthier lifestyle are aimed partially at children who are greater risks for developing type 2 diabetes. Those discussions couldn't be timelier as type 2 diabetes rates in children grew from virtually none in the 1990s to more than 3,600 annually in 2005 (the latest year with data available).

Type 1 research has also emphasized tighter control and management to reduce complications, but through different methods. One of the most important innovations has been the development of affordable insulin pumps.

Designed to artificially mimic a pancreas, the pumps provide a steady stream of insulin into the patient's body. Though styles and methods vary, the devices have grown progressively smaller and less clunky. I recently joined the ranks of insulin pump users and the technology has been transformative, to say the least.

The device I wear, the OmniPod, contains no wires and communicates with a separate tiny computer (it looks like a smartphone) to deliver the insulin. From glancing at me, you probably wouldn't be able to find the device. It's that small.

Every three days, I put a new pod onto my body after loading it by insulin. After placing it on my underarm, abdomen, lower back, or leg, I press a button and a needle is inserted into my skin for 1/200 of a second. The needle is then withdrawn, and a plastic cannula (tube) is all that remains to deliver the insulin.

From the handheld computer (it is called a "personal diabetes manager"), I test my blood sugar, control how much insulin I'm receiving at any given moment, and track trends in both blood sugars and insulin delivery.

In addition to pumps, research trials have explored the possibility of transplanting healthy pancreases into type 1 diabetics. The results have been promising -- those pancreases that are accepted tend to cure the patient of diabetes -- but organ rejection remains a daunting challenge to overcome.

Outside of the medical realm, social media has brought a new wave of interconnectedness and communication between diabetics. Networks like Juvenation provide message boards and opportunities for diabetics to answer questions and support one another. Another site, Diabetes Mine, offers daily news about the disease.

On a more local level, support groups have grown into even smaller niche communities. Diabetic athlete groups now exist in many parts of the country and social groups host happy hours and other events for networking and mingling.

Though I was fortunate enough to have the support of a loving family and a devoted group of friends immediately after my diagnosis, there is no question the moments of feeling alone would have seemed less overwhelming with these social media communities. Until society can find a cure for this disease (and we will), it is encouraging to see continual medical and technological innovation, so diabetics (both type 1 and type 2) don't have to face the challenges that come with these diseases alone.

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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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