My Life with Diabetes
WELL BEYOND A HALF CENTURY AND COUNTING...
I had been the research director of a company that made equipment for hospital laboratories, but recently I had taken a new job as an officer of a housewares corporation. I was still receiving trade journals from my old field, and one day I opened the latest issue of a publication called Lab World. I came upon an advertisement for a new device to help hospital emergency rooms distinguish between unconscious diabetics and unconscious drunks during the night, when laboratories
were closed. Knowing that an unconscious person was a diabetic and not drunk could easily help hospital personnel save his life. What I stumbled upon was an ad for a blood sugar meter that would give a reading in 1 minute, using a single drop of blood.
Since I’d been experiencing many blood sugars that were too low, and since the tests I had been performing on my urine were wholly inadequate (sugar that shows up in the urine is already on its way out of the bloodstream), I figured that if I knew what my blood sugars were, perhaps I could catch and correct my hypoglycemic episodes before they made me disoriented and irrational.
I marveled over the instrument. It had a 4-inch galvanometer with a jeweled bearing, weighed 3 pounds, and cost $650. I tried to order one, but the manufacturer wouldn’t sell it to patients, only to doctors and hospitals.
Fortunately, my wife, as I’ve said, was a physician, so I ordered one in her name. I started to measure my blood sugar about 5 times each day, and soon saw that the levels were on a roller coaster. Engineers are accustomed to solving problems mathematically, but you have to have information to work with. You have to know the mechanics of a problem in order to solve it, and now, for the first time, I was gaining insight into the mechanics and mathematics of my disease. What I learned from my frequent testing was that my own blood sugars swung from lows of under 40 mg/dl to highs of over 400 mg/dl about twice daily. A normal blood sugar level is about 85 mg/dl.* Small wonder
I was subject to such vast mood swings.
Although most medical journals and textbooks throughout the world measure blood glucose in mmol/l (millimoles per liter), most physicians, laboratories, and blood glucose meters in the United States measure blood glucose in mg/dl
In an effort to level my blood sugars, I began to adjust my insulin regimen, and went from one injection a day to two. I made some experimental modifications to my diet, cutting down on the carbohydrates to permit me to take less insulin. The very high and low blood sugar levels became less frequent, but few were normal.
Three years after I started measuring my blood sugar levels, my diabetic complications were still progressing, and I was still a 115-pound weakling. My sense of gaining insight into the long-term complications of my diabetes had diminished, and so I ordered a computer search of the scientific literature to see if exercise could prevent diabetic complications. In those days, computer searches were not the simple, almost instant searches they are today. In 1972 you made your request to
the local medical library, which mailed it to Washington, D.C., where it was processed. It took about two weeks for my $75 printout to arrive.
There were quite a few entries of interest, and I ordered copies of the original articles. For the most part these were from esoteric journals and dealt with animal experiments. The information I had hoped to find didn’t exist. I didn’t find a single article pertaining to the prevention of diabetic complications by exercise.
What I did find was that such complications had repeatedly been prevented, and even reversed, in animals.Not through exercise, but by normalizing blood sugars! To me, this was a total surprise. All of diabetes treatment was heavily focused in other directions, such as lowfat diets, preventing severe hypoglycemia, and preventing a potentially fatal extreme high blood sugar condition called ketoacidosis. Thus it had not occurred to me that keeping blood sugar levels as close to normal
as possible for as much of the time as possible would make a difference.
Excited by my discovery, I showed these reports to my physician, who was not impressed. “Animals aren’t humans,” he said, “and besides, it’s impossible to normalize human blood sugars.” Since I had
been trained as an engineer, not as a physician, I knew nothing of such impossibilities, and since I was desperate, I had no choice but to pretend I was an animal.
I spent the next year checking my blood sugars 5–8 times each day.
Every few days, I’d make a small, experimental change in my diet or insulin regimen to see what the effect would be on my blood sugar. If a change brought an improvement, I’d retain it. If it made blood sugars worse, I’d discard it. I discovered that 1 gram of carbohydrate raised my blood sugar by 5 mg/dl, and ½ unit of the old beef/pork insulin lowered it by 15 mg/dl.
(milligrams per deciliter). Blood glucose values in this book are as a rule given in mg/dl. If you should need to translate from one to the other, 1 mmol/l = 18 mg/dl.
Within a year, I had refined my insulin and diet regimen to the point that I had essentially normal blood sugars around the clock. After years of chronic fatigue and debilitating complications, almost
overnight I was no longer continually tired or “washed out.” People commented that my gray complexion was gone. After years of skyhigh readings, my serum cholesterol and triglyceride levels had now not only dropped, but were at the low end of the normal ranges.
I started to gain weight, and at last I was able to build muscle as readily as nondiabetics. My insulin requirements dropped to about one-third of what they had been a year earlier. With the subsequent
development of human insulin, my dosage dropped to less than onesixth of the original. The painful, slow-healing lumps the injections of large doses of insulin left under my skin disappeared. The fatty
growths on my eyelids from high cholesterol vanished. My digestive problems (chronic burning in my chest and belching after meals) and the proteinuria that had so worried me eventually vanished. Today,my results from even the most sensitive kidney function tests are all normal.
The cystoid macular edema that I thought as recently as twelve years ago was irreversible has finally reversed. My deformed feet, the calcified walls of arteries in my legs, and the loss of hair on my lower legs are not reversible and still remain.
I had the new sensation of being the boss of my own metabolic state, and began to feel the same sense of accomplishment and reward I had in engineering when I solved a difficult problem. I had taught myself how to make my blood sugars whatever I wanted them to be and was no longer on the roller coaster. Things were finally under my control.
Back in 1973, I felt quite exhilarated with my success, and I felt that I was on to something big. Since getting the results of my computer search, I had been a subscriber to all of the English-language diabetes journals, and none of them had mentioned the need for normalizing
blood sugars in humans.