by Holly Penta
In honor of National Diabetes Awareness Month I interviewed Mary Claire Davis, a survivor of Type 1 Diabetes and one of my best friends. The first thing Mary Claire said when I began the interview was “it was November 30th, 2016”, the date stuck in her mind. She was 16 years old, just got her license, and had to spend 4 days in the New Orleans Children’s Hospital where she was described as “the healthiest Type 1 Diabetic they’d admitted.” Health didn’t matter, Type 1 does not discriminate.
Mary Claire remembers being little and playing with her dad’s glucometer, pretending to poke needles into her fingers and check her blood sugar. She didn’t know that by the time she was 16 she’d be checking her sugar before going anywhere.
Like many (if not most) people, I had a very limited understanding of what exactly Type 1 Diabetes is. I was almost embarrassed to ask, I’ve known Mary Claire since we were 5 or 6, known she had diabetes for 2 years and still never bothered to look it up. As Mary Claire explained, a bad case of the flu is what started her diabetes. It’s an autoimmune disease, so when she got sick her body focused too hard on fighting the virus and ended up attacking itself. The pancreas started to dilate and stopped producing insulin. It stopped processing food and fluid, which caused Mary Claire to lose weight, no matter how much she ate. She was constantly hungry, thirsty, tired, and always needing to pee. She started losing focus, feeling “fogginess in the brain”, and her breath smelled sweet. The symptoms of a low can be extreme, including shaking, nausea, dizziness, confusion, weakness of limbs, exhaustion, and even fainting. Sometimes it’s accompanied by a mood shift, causing my usually happy friend to become irritable, stubborn, and sometimes a little aggressive. High blood sugar can be bad too, she has to live chasing the perfect balance.
Diabetes is “literally a constant battle”, there is a constant fear of the consequences of it, if she forgets to check her blood sugar just once it could lead to low blood sugar seizures or even death, and prolonged neglect of the disease could lead to the loss of a limb or the loss of eyesight. Every night she is scared she might not wake up.
Most people our age don’t have to worry about this. I know I don’t. I asked how it’s changed her outlook on life, honestly expecting it to have had a negative impact. But just the opposite, she says she appreciates the little things more and always knows that “it could be worse”. She said she’s thankful for friends and family who try to understand what having diabetes really entails and to those who provide low carb and low sugar foods at parties and events they know she’s attending. “Just ask” she says. If there is something you’re curious about she’d rather you ask than make assumptions, she won’t be offended, and she “actually loves talking about it”.
I imagined it would be somewhat like a diet in the sense that it would be hard to sit with people while they ate sugary or high carb foods. But she says it's not too hard since she can eat most things in moderation with the right amount of insulin. She does, however, get annoyed when people complain about not being able to eat as much as they’d like for trivial reasons, like fad diets, or tell her to “just forget” about her diabetes for the night. It’s unforgettable. Pointing out that she wouldn’t be able to eat something doesn’t help either, she’s well aware of what is and what’s not good for her.
Being diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes means being diagnosed with the stereotypes and misconceptions as well. Mary Claire says she’s found that people seem to think that Type 1 is caused by eating too much sugar or being overweight. People have told her that it’s not a big deal, or to “eat cinnamon to revive” her pancreas. She said she wishes people would understand that her pancreas is gone, “it’s dead and never coming back”. That’s one of the major differences between Type 1 and Type 2, Type 1 is forever.
Since November 30th, 2016 there has been a “weight, always nagging” on her mind. Even in class, people see her looking at her pump and glare, when trying to get into a university football game, a security guard argued with her about bringing food into the stadium. At a Sonic Drive Thru a waitress gave her a Sprite instead of a water, being too lazy to repour the drink, not realizing that one soda has just about as many carbs as a burger. The waitress meant no harm, probably just thinking that her customer would be grateful for a free soda, not even considering the potential consequences.
It’s a daily struggle, checking her sugar by finger prick at least 5 times a day, if her pump site gets knocked out of place she sometimes has to miss class to insert a new one. Each test strip costs $1 and without insurance her pump and sensor would be $10,000-$20,000, and her overall care would be over $35,000 a year, not to mention the doctor's appointments, getting bloodwork done every 3 months, and all the worrying it causes. It all adds up fast to take a big toll physically, emotionally, and financially.
With this in mind, I asked Mary Claire the best way to help. I’m no doctor, I have no way to find a cure, so charity and raising awareness is the best option for me. Her favorite charity is Beyond Type 1 (https://beyondtype1.org), a foundation started by Nick Jonas, another survivor of Type 1 Diabetes. The charity publishes blogs to raise awareness and help diabetics cope, and raises money to help people get the supplies they need and for research. 100% of their donations go directly to funding these things. Please share and donate if you can. Every dollar can help someone just like Mary Claire.