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More Stories - The Way We Were

Living Healthy with Diabetes
by Mark Franek


According to the National Centers for Disease Control (CDC), nearly 21 million people in America are now believed to be diabetic (Type I and Type II combined), and 41 million more are believed to be pre-diabetic, which means that if they don’t lose weight and exercise more, their blood-sugar level could dangerously escalate, making them diabetic.

Everybody knows somebody who has either died of diabetes, or is living with complications, such as a stump for a foot, kidney failure, bad eyes, or erectile dysfunction. Every time the topic of diabetes comes up in the news, the narrative reads like a trail of tears. It’s enough to make my blood boil (and my blood has had its fair share of ups and downs).

I have been a diabetic for 25 years.

I was diagnosed when I was 11-years-old. I have only one distinct memory of my time in the hospital: I remember shooting grapefruits full of water with hypodermic needles, practicing, while a nurse looked on. Over the years, my experiences have obviously grown and I have learned how to cope with the disease.

I know what it’s like to test my blood-sugar several times a day, the more the better. I know what it’s like to wake up in the middle of the night and stumble to the kitchen to down a Gatorade or a granola bar, literally anything I can get my hands on. I know what it’s like to eat when I’m not hungry, and I know what it’s like to feel hungry and yet not be able to eat.

Like many diabetics, I also know what it’s like to have blood-sugar levels so low that I’ve lost consciousness, and I know what it’s like to have levels so high that my tongue tastes like an orange, all fruity. Like all diabetics, I know what it’s like to feel deflated and tired down on the molecular level. Luckily for me, this feeling goes away because I am in great control. I have managed the blood-sugar roller coaster, but it hasn’t been easy.

It’s not all bad, being a diabetic.

As a teenager, it taught me independence and self-control, years before most of my peers had any. I was well-liked and popular, especially with the girls (I always had candy to give out). Diabetes never got in the way of my schoolwork or athletic pursuits. With only two exceptions, all professions are open to me. So what if I can’t fly commercial planes? (I never liked flying anyway.) I can’t serve in the military, either (no real loss there). And when my girlfriend wants to go shopping or to see a silly movie, I sometimes feign being light-headed, or tell her that I need to exercise instead.

Having diabetes is no laughing matter, but there are funny moments. For the first few months after my diagnosis my father gave me injections in my buttocks (I’d hardly even wake up). Somewhere during that time he inadvertently gave my friend an injection the morning after a sleepover, a monumental mix-up that precipitated an all-day feast for my friend, who had to ingest thousands of calories to offset the extra insulin. To a bunch of 11-year-olds, that was really funny.

There has never been anything that I haven’t been able to do because of my so-called illness. In fact, I don’t even like to use the word "illness" or "disease" to describe diabetes because the only thing wrong with me is that my pancreas no longer produces insulin, the hormone that functions as a catalyst by allowing food to be turned into energy. The illness that killed off my insulin-producing cells when I was 11 is long gone.

I have skydived, scuba-dived, lived in foreign countries, run marathons half-marathons, and played semi-professional soccer. My body is doing just fine.

Diabetes (Type I and Type II) is an infinitely treatable disease. Great control is possible; it demands honestly, intelligence, and above all consistency. Bad control is a direct result of lousy habits, stupid behavior, and a negative attitude. It helps to exhibit a little chutzpah and confidence in the face of the challenges.

There is a scene in this one Hollywood movie where an alien comes to earth in the form of a very sexy woman, looking for sperm donors for her alien progeny (unbeknownst to the men). She is very successful in this regard. Eventually she meets an attractive, wealthy guy, but instead of sleeping with him, she kills him. Apparently he was a diabetic (damaged goods). I was personally offended! Where are my lancets? I have some writers and directors to stab.

Until the day a cure is found, I have backed my foe into a corner and temporarily knocked him out. Here I am, still in the ring, floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee. Education and good control have been my trainers. Anything you can do I can do better. Would you like some candy?

Mark Franek is the dean of students at the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia. This piece originally appeared in the Baltimore Sun. More stories and essays can be found at Mark's site, http://markfranek.wordpress.com/

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