Isabella uses diabetes to fuel her determination

Thursday, 20 August 2020

By Isabella Magee

My mother has a particularly expressive face. I can see by looking at her what mood she is in. The exception was one Thursday night in 2009 when I was 11.

It was August 27. At about 11pm Mum woke me: “Bella, we have to go to the hospital.”

She was discussing my recent blood results on the phone. I didn’t recognise the look on her face. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking. Was it the dark night or my new need for prescription glasses? It didn’t matter.

Something was wrong

I knew something was wrong when the experienced paediatric nurse I call my mother was seemingly frantic.

The poor health manifestations of dehydration, nausea, migraines and sleepy eyes, which I’d been feeling for months, weren’t part of a “pre-teen phase”.

I was rushed to the Emergency Department, holding onto nothing but a pillow, my mother’s hand and the realisation nothing would be the same again.

Confirmed by doctors, my dangerous weight loss, electrolyte balance, heart rate, blood glucose and ketone levels were symptoms I’d never forget.

Just like that, I was diagnosed with type one diabetes.

I didn’t know what to think. I lay among the white sheets, surrounded by the sterile unknowns of the hospital, and tried to recall the chain of events before I ended up here.

A few weeks prior, my mother had taken me to a GP. She asked if what I was experiencing could be type one diabetes. The doctor disagreed and told us, incorrectly, “Type one’s don’t lose weight”.

Nevertheless, my mother still requested blood tests.

I didn’t feel the doctor put as much importance on my tests as he should have done.

“Just an overly worried mother,” I imagined the doctor saying to himself as he signed the form.

Diabetic ketoacidosis threatens life

I wondered how sick I would have become if my mother wasn’t aware of type one diabetes symptoms. I also wondered if I would have been in diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) if the GP was.

[DKA is a life-threatening condition that develops when cells in the body are unable to get the glucose they need for energy because there is not enough insulin.

When the glucose can’t enter the cells, it stays in the blood. The kidneys filter some of the glucose from the blood and remove it from the body through urine.

Because the cells cannot receive glucose for energy, the body begins to break down muscle and fat for energy. When this happens, ketones (fatty acids) are produced and enter the bloodstream, causing the chemical imbalance called diabetic ketoacidosis.

If left untreated DKA can cause many complications including: cerebral oedema (swelling of the brain), severe dehydration, kidney failure, respiratory distress syndrome (fluid in the lungs), and blindness. It can be fatal.]

I spent more than a week in hospital, practising injections on an orange, eating sugarless jelly and counting carbohydrates.

Emotional strain

I became well-educated about my condition and the physical struggles and symptoms I would face daily, but no amount of education could prepare me for the emotional strain.

Sure, my pancreas suddenly deciding it was retiring was annoying, but that didn’t compare to the annoyance of how little people could physically see of all my battles.

When refrigerated gold (insulin) in glass vials defined living or barely breathing, I mentally shutdown.

I chose to turn a blind eye to diabetes. For too long, I tried to ignore the fact that my body had attacked itself: I wanted to push the illness away even if it killed me, and it almost did.

Thankfully, one bittersweet night changed my attitude.

I woke up with stomach pains, struggling to check my blood glucose level, and when the result showed double digits on the screen, I wasn’t shocked. I drew up my fast-acting insulin and sighed as the stainless-steel needle punctured a small wound in my thigh.

I waited, checked my BGL again, another puncture, waited, checked again …

But after the glucose overload in my brain slowly left, I suddenly found I was only fighting myself, not diabetes.

I can do everything and with one less working organ

Diabetes was part of my life now and the only battle was my resistance to accept it. Finally, after attacking with a blunt sword of ignorance, I signed a peace treaty with myself. I learnt I can do what everyone else can and do it with one less working organ.

This condition is bittersweet, bringing me some of my worst lows and also my best highs.

I knew nothing of diabetes before I was diagnosed, which got me thinking.

How many other medical illnesses do I know nothing about?

But more importantly, how can I educate myself and help as many others as I can along the way?

The merging of journalism studies with minors in health sciences and physical activities may seem like joining chalk and cheese but they all come from the same (ethical) intention to spread medical awareness and knowledge in order to help those who feel their voice isn’t being heard.

I choose to approach every aspect of my future as I do diabetes: I’m ready for anything.

As someone with a chronic and invisible illness, I feel it’s important to have supportive and caring people around you.

Some are willing to walk in my shoes, and the support of family, friends and medical professionals constantly reminds me this isn’t something I have to trek through alone.

Thank you.

Carrying the weight of this unchosen burden on my shoulders is heavy but I am strong, and when the dark days have caused storms, I’ve learnt to build a bridge and get over it.

I had never celebrated my “Diaversary” before but after a decade of being type one, for the first time in 2019, I did.

Connect with me: Instagram & Twitter @isabellagmagee 

Join our community of over 45,000 people living with diabetes