‘We won’t let our illness get us down’
The figures are shocking. Nearly one in every five people (18.98 per cent) in the UAE has diabetes. Worldwide, morethan 382 million people are living with the condition – and this number is projected to rise above 592 million by 2025.
Diabetes and its complications are responsible for nearly 200,000 worldwide fatalities every year. Diabetic adults are 50 per cent more likely to die than those without the condition, according to the most recent figures from the International Diabetes Federation (IDF).
The largest increase is in the ‘lifestyle’ type 2 diabetes, which is mainly brought on by a sedantary lifestyle and unhealthy eating habits. Surprisingly, just 10 minutes of moderate to intense activity three or more times a day can help keep the condition away.
According to Dr Lolwa Khairai Sultan of Lifeline Clinic, Jebel Ali, while ethnicity and culture have a major role to play in acquiring this condition, wrong food choices and a sedentary lifestyle are major contributory factors.
As we observe World Diabetes Day next week, Shiva Kumar Thekkepat meets three women diabetics who refuse to let the disease beat them…
‘I treat diabetes like a house guest’
Mena Helmy, 21, a student, living in Dubai, was diagnosed as a child
I ’ve had type 1 diabetes since I was five years old. It was a huge shock for my parents as I was the first one in the family to be diagnosed. remember some of the symptoms – lost a lot of weight, became really skinny and began wetting the bed again for the first time in years.
I started drinking too much water, was never hungry and didn’t want to eat – all general symptoms of type 1. But my parents thought I had come down with an infection. They took me to the doctor for tests and I was diagnosed with diabetes. My life changed overnight. My childhood was basically growing up in hospitals, surrounded by doctors and nurses.
My parents taught me to treat my diabetes like an annoying house guest – if I was nice and respected it, it wouldn’t trouble me too much. But the minute I was careless or neglectful it would come at me with a vengeance.
It was depressing at first. It’s not easy being a child and not understanding why you have to prick yourself for blood four to five times a day. Kids at that age can be vicious sometimes with their comments, but I would crack jokes about it to disarm them. I’d say: “So what if I am diabetic, it makes me a lot sweeter that you!”
My parents handled it very well, they let me do whatever I wanted. I was allowed to join the sports team and eat candy. I was also allowed to travel. They just told me to see that my diabetes was under control.
They supported me. Until the age of eight, they did all the checking for me – after that they basically said, “Now you know it, go ahead and take the reins, it’s your life now”. I was teased and bullied growing up because of my disease and it traumatised me. Other kids would say I was an addict when I had my injections, and I would cry.
I have a lot of friends who have, sadly, been diagnosed with diabetes whether it is type 1 or type 2, and they would all agree the disease has a major impact on you, mentally as well as physically. Having diabetes definitely affects your lifestyle. You
are always calculating calories, telling yourself to be careful because you are diabetic. There is always that thought in your head that you are not normal.
Every day as soon as I wake up I check my blood sugar on my glucometer. Even though it is a finger prick, it stings and I’ll never get used to it. Then I have breakfast even though I don’t really like eating in the morning, because I am required to regulate my blood sugar levels.
After that I’ll head off to university. I have to check my sugar levels again before and after lunch. It’s the same for dinner.
I have two types of insulin, a longacting and a short-acting one, and have to inject myself six times a day. I eat everything I want. I don’t believe in dietary restrictions.
I just make sure that whatever I eat, I take enough insulin to cover it. It’s about knowing your carbohydrates, sugar and protein intake and the long-term effects, and how much insulin you need in your system to cover that.
If I have a heavy carb meal like a pizza that’s going to keep burning in my body for a long time, and if I don’t give it enough insulin to cover that then I am going to have a hyperglycaemia (in which an excessive amount of glucose circulates in the blood plasma). Although it shows few symptoms in the short-term, in the long term it can damage the kidneys and heart.
I take my diabetes very seriously and so do my family and friends. My closest friends have educated themselves on the topic, so that in case of an emergency they can administer the insulin to me.
I always double-check everything. I make sure my insulin is always cold (I keep it in a fridge), and that I have extra supplies when I travel.
Every diabetic passes through a rebellious phase when you think, “that’s it, I don’t want to do this any more, I am tired and exhausted of keeping at it.” When you want to give up it’s up to the people around you to remind you that you can’t afford to indulge yourself, it will come back to bite you.
We don’t yet have diabetic ID cards here, but I always carry a paper on me that says I am one in case of an emergency. I’m not alone in having diabetes and I won’t let it rule me. I’ve learnt to live with it, and see it as part of me now, not an obstacle.
I do my own thing, I have fun. I’m still me, I just happen to have diabetes. It doesn’t define who I am.
‘I’ve got diabetes, but diabetes has not got me!’
Rosarie Marie Mains, 66, is a homemaker in Abu Dhabi who has suffered from type 2 diabetes for four years
found out about my diabetes by accident about four years back when I went for a surgery to remove a cancerous tumour in my forehead. I kept complaining to the doctor that my right toe was hurting me, so he said we needed to check for diabetes. I didn’t believe him until the tests came in positive for type 2.
Then fear took over – an uncontrollable terror, because I had heard all the horror stories about amputations and didn’t want that.
I bought a month’s packet of diabetes testing strips but they were gone in a week. I was checking my sugar levels all the time, I was so frightened. Then I sat there and thought: ‘I must calm down and face this thing.’
I accepted the diagnosis but I didn’t want to do anything about it. I had it for life. It was an emotional roller coaster.
First, I thought I’d lose my toes. Then I told myself: ‘I am not going to lose anything’. If I couldn’t beat it, I became determined to at least halt its progress as much as I could. So I had to educate myself.
I went online and read up on everything I could. I learnt that peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is a condition in which arteries leading to the legs and feet (or in some cases the arms) become clogged with fatty deposits called plaque, resulting in reduced or blocked blood flow to these areas. This is what causes the pain, and people with type 2 diabetes are far more likely to develop PAD.
I was not going to give in to it, thinking I was going to lose my arms and legs. I’ve lost my brother to it, but he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes much later than I was. He developed gangrene in his right leg because he refused to believe that it could kill him.
That’s a way of pushing yourself too far. I believe that every time a diabetic binges on carbohydrates they are pushing the limit. I refuse to do that.
Now I’m too cautious and criticise what everyone else eats too.
When I see my husband Joe stuffing himself, I have to really stop myself from nagging him.
I follow a very strict diet. I hardly eat carbohydrates. I’ll eat plenty of veg and then treat myself now and then. Instead of having a bowl of ice cream, I’ll have a teaspoon. All my portions are controlled. I check my sugar levels once a day.
Every three months I have a fasting blood test to check the glucose levels. Then they call me from the lab and say, “Congratulations, you don’t have diabetes!” and I laugh!
Initially I went through very deep depression and severe mood swings until I got everything sorted out. I realised that the only answer was to keep a positive attitude and laugh. Otherwise, it was going to beat me.
I have pets – three dogs – who keep me company on my bad days and help put things in perspective. I try to keep a positive attitude.
My hands and feet get really hot, boiling sometimes. That’s one of the side-effects of diabetes. Cramps in the legs and feet, too.
There are so many such conditions that can isolate you because others can’t understand your situation. I call it the invisible illness because nobody can see it.
You can fool yourself that you have beaten it. I had my sugar level down, I was ready to cut my medication down, so I thought I had beaten it. It had gone! But it never does. You have to be vigilant all the time.
But although I can’t beat diabetes, I can beat the fear. It doesn’t scare me anymore. I have my diet and sugar levels under control. I’ve got diabetes, it hasn’t got me.
‘I was in denial’
Marie Antonetta, 38, HR personnel, single and living in Dubai, suffering from type 2 diabetes for three years
I discovered that I had diabetes around three years ago when I went to a doctor because I always felt tired. I was in a state of denial – couldn’t believe I had diabetes. The idea of taking insulin injections every day, becoming dependent on medicine for my existence, was truly frightening. I just didn’t want to think of that possibility.
So I kept telling myself that I just had high sugar, which I could control. If I accepted my condition I had to take steps to make it better – I had to stop eating my beloved chocolates. That, I think, is the principal block towards accepting diabetes that most patients face. You try to put it off until it is no longer possible. It’s only recently that I started accepting I am diabetic and need to take care of myself.
It really struck home when I had a biopsy for a tumour on my chin. I got my wake-up call when I had to go for surgery and the doctors told me they couldn’t operate because of my high blood sugar levels. So, I had to maintain a certain level.
Under the supervision of my doctor, I ate smaller portions for a week and drank a lot of water and also tried to maintain a healthy lifestyle. The axe came down first on sweets, then coffee, and finally rice, which used to be my staple diet. Now, my body’s accepted the changes and it’s responding – my blood sugar level is normal.
And I achieved my objective. Just two days ago I had the surgery done, and everything turned out fine. The tumour was benign. I have finally accepted I am diabetic.
This condition means that I must be vigilant all the time. This goes against my usual nature, as I tend to be a happy-go-lucky person.
The problem with being diabetic is that there are no off days, you have to be on top of it twentyfour seven. You work out a diet for yourself, work out a certain lifestyle for yourself, and you just have to stick to it, day in and day out. There’s no holiday from it.
Sometimes that itself is enough to tire you out. I am alone in Dubai; my family is back in the Philippines. So I don’t have anybody to look out for me, to pull me up if I falter, to advise me, to perk me up when I am feeling down.
So, I’ve worked out a little something for myself. Once in a while I’ll have a cheat day when I will eat a cup of ice cream or candy or something else that I crave. I won’t go beyond that. I don’t want to take insulin injections to control the diabetes; I manage with my pills, so I have to be strict about my diet. It’s difficult to give up sugar and carbohydrates completely. I take it step by step.
After I discovered I had diabetes, I was afraid of visiting the doctor, afraid of getting more bad news. Now that I’ve accepted my condition, I’m no longer afraid. My goal is never to inject myself with insulin. I am trying to ensure that I never get to that stage.
My doctor has advised me to exercise regularly. I am trying to take the stairs whenever I can – that’s the extent to which I have progressed. I’ve been at it for the past three months. Now, after my operation, I will take up some exercise, too.
The real motivation for me is to see that my diabetes condition does not deteriorate to the extent that would necessitate the amputation of a body part. That’s partly what got me going on my diet.
Having faith in oneself and loving and respecting oneself is also important. I have learnt this the hard way.