July 10 is Chronic Disease Day, an annual initiative to raise awareness and advocate for people living with chronic illnesses. Blue Yonder associate Polly Bryant shares her story about growing up with Type 1 diabetes and how it has shaped her life today.

Tell us about Type 1 diabetes and when you were first diagnosed.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas called islet cells. When there is no (or not enough) insulin, glucose stays in the blood and your body is unable to use it. As a result, the body starts burning fat at an alarming rate (far more than in a healthy person), and a byproduct of this is ketones, which get into your blood and turn it acidic. This is called diabetic ketoacidosis and it’s a life-threatening medical emergency. This is how a lot of people get diagnosed. There are two main types of diabetes – Type 1 and Type 2. The cause and initial treatment of each is different, but the symptoms—as well as some of the treatments—are similar.

The impact of this chronic illness goes beyond the body. Having to be your own pancreas requires a lot of brainpower, and it’s not something widely known about, with misinformation being spread in TV shows and movies. Who here thinks a person with diabetes needs insulin if they pass out? And why would anybody know about a condition that affects 0.015% of people globally?

I don’t remember much about my diagnosis because I was only 3 years old. I remember being in the hospital a lot as a child due to ketoacidosis. I remember feeding tubes up my nose, and my throat being too sore to eat because I’d vomited so much that acid had burned my throat. I also remember it being a great place to be because I could watch as much TV as I wanted and they had really good toys to play with (including a rocking horse!).

What does your day-to-day life look like with Type 1 diabetes?

Day-to-day life with Type 1 diabetes can be challenging. For me, it’s led to a lot of anxiety and thoughts of inadequacy due to not being able to keep up with others. The near constant mental math and obsession with food and activity slows me down a bit. Living a “normal” life is different for me but I’ve learned what works for me. I’ve accepted that I need time to treat hypoglycaemias (low blood glucose), go to medical appointments, and for extra rest when things go haywire. On the plus side, if anyone wants to know what’s in their food, hit me up!

Here’s an example of how having Type 1 diabetes can completely change an experience. Let’s say I’m going for lunch with colleagues on a Friday. We haven’t planned it, so while everyone is talking about where to go, I’m thinking about:

  1. What is my current blood glucose level?
  2. How long since I last ate/took insulin? Insulin is active for four hours, and the action profile is sort of like a front-loaded bell curve peaking at one hour.
  3. Did I do high-intensity exercise within the last 24 hours? High-intensity exercise increases your sensitivity to insulin for 24-48 hours.
  4. How are we getting there (walking or driving)? Walking means movement, which lowers blood glucose levels. Usually five minutes is fine, but more than that requires some action to prevent low blood glucose.
  5. When are we going? Do I need to do something to ensure my blood glucose doesn’t drop?
  6. Have I had coffee? Caffeine can increase blood glucose levels.
  7. Did I have a glass of wine last night? Alcohol can increase insulin sensitivity for 24-48 hours after consumption.
  8. Am I stressed? Stress increases blood glucose levels.
  9. What’s the weather like? Hot weather can cause drops in blood glucose due to faster absorption of insulin. It can also denature the insulin, making it less effective, which will raise blood glucose levels.
  10. Where am I in my monthly cycle? Insulin sensitivity varies wildly throughout the monthly cycle for women. This can mean doubling insulin doses at certain times.
  11. Have I got enough hypoglycaemia treatments with me? Sweets are my treatment. There’s added anxiety about someone seeing them and wanting one.

While going for lunch is a bit of an ordeal, I do still enjoy it.

What lessons have you taken from your disease that have allowed you to live a full life?

Having Type 1 diabetes has had a profound impact on my life. Because I was diagnosed at such a young age, I have no sense of the freedom I’m missing and this is a blessing for me.

Although my body is damaged, I’m immensely grateful for all the things it can still do. With the right planning and support I can do most anything. I’m also beyond grateful that I live in the UK where we have a free health care system, especially since the medication to treat the disease is very expensive.

Some of the positives that have come out of my diagnosis:

  • I met my oldest friend at the hospital – we both have Type 1 diabetes and I can’t express how valuable it is to have someone who understands the frustrations and challenges of living with such a mentally demanding condition
  • It’s made me a human database of carbohydrate/food content information
  • I’m very in tune with my body
  • Empathetic to the needs of others
  • I get to use some cool technology
  • A better understanding of our health care systems

Some of the negative impacts that are important for others to know about:

  • Anxiety – I don’t fit in, I have additional needs, my illness is invisible, the impact of the diabetes on long-term health, will my son get it
  • Increased mental load
  • I need more rest
  • I have to plan, and can’t just be spontaneous

What would you say to someone who is first being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes?

It’s going to be okay. Nobody keeps their blood glucose in range all the time. Find other people with Type 1 diabetes (I’m here for anyone when it gets overwhelming!). Learn to count carbohydrates, what impacts blood glucose levels, and how those things impact you. Also, look at all the cool shiny tech you can use!

Anything else you want to share?

If someone taking insulin passes out, it’s most likely due to low blood sugar levels, meaning they need sugar and insulin could kill them. There are some very sad stories of this misinformation causing a well-meaning person to administer insulin in such a situation and, unfortunately, causing severe brain damage in the person they were trying to help. Do better film industry. Please.

To learn more about diabetes, check out these resources: