1.4 Million Americans are diagnosed with diabetes every year.
Written by Ron Comings
When I was a kid, I hated shots. We got them at school. We got them from the dentist. We got them at the doctor’s office way too often for me. When my younger cousin was diagnosed with diabetes when she was in third grade, she had to give herself a shot everyday. I became deathly afraid of diabetes. I still am.
There are actually several types of diabetes, but my cousin had—still has—what is known as Type 1 diabetes (T1D). Formerly known as juvenile diabetes, Type 1 diabetes can actually strike both children and adults suddenly. It is an autoimmune disease, and neither lifestyle nor diet causes it. Quite simply, the pancreas of those affected with T1D stops producing insulin, a hormone that enables the body to get glucose from the bloodstream and into its cells. There is no cure for T1D, and left untreated, it can cause severe complications. Anyone suffering from T1D must constantly monitor his/her blood-sugar level and balance their doses with daily food consumption and activities.
Between five and ten percent of all diabetes patients suffer from T1D. This story will introduce you to two Las Vegans who have lived with Type 1 diabetes since childhood. Judy Reich contracted the disease as a child, and Gary Bodnar lost his wife after she struggled with the disease for 57 years. Both know the challenges of treating T1D and how living with it changes every part of one’s day, everyday forever.
Judy Reich, who works for the Nevada Broadcasters Association, was seven-years old when she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. In the beginning, she needed only one shot a day. Eventually, she needed one in the morning and another shot in the evening. She had to monitor her blood sugar level throughout the day by pricking a finger to get blood for a test strip. That didn’t even tell her if her blood sugar was going up, was going down or was stable.
It’s critical for those with T1D to know their blood sugar levels because their bodies can’t use sugar as a fuel if they aren’t producing enough insulin. When one’s body lacks insulin, the kidneys work to remove excess glucose, fat cells break down to counter the loss of sugar, and ketone bodies build up in the blood and cause toxic levels of the ketone acids. The resulting condition, ketoacidosis, can lead to severe illness, coma, and even death.
While Judy has had only had one emergency—and that was when she was a child when she was given glucose intravenously—she still monitors her blood-sugar levels several time every single day and even during the night. She says people with Type 1 thinks about their illness on average 110 times a day. Judy now has continuous glucose monitoring through a sensor placed just under the skin to give her a reading on her blood sugar level. She has an insulin pump attached to her body through a catheter and works with an endocrinologist to help in programming the pump. It supplies insulin when she needs it.
If you talk to Judy for just a few minutes, you quickly learn she is very knowledgeable about the disease and conscientious about keeping on top of her health and managing her condition.
Gary Bodnar has had a different experience with Type 1 diabetes. His wife died as a result of the illness. Gary’s wife, Merilyn, had been diagnosed with Type 1 when she was five years old. Gary said that Merilyn was very afraid of kidney failure, so she purposely kept her blood sugar level low. Over the years, she had to have emergency care at least ten times.
Those with Type 1 diabetes have to watch their diets. If they don’t eat enough or forget to eat after taking insulin, they may have too much insulin in their blood, leading to a condition called hypoglycemia (what most of us call insulin shock). If not treated, it can lead to seizures, coma and even death. Like Judy, Merilyn did wear an insulin pump during the 90s. However, doctors removed the pump because she would forget how much insulin she had given herself. She went back to daily shots.
Helping his wife manage her illness was often stressful and difficult for Gary. If Merilyn’s blood sugar was too low, he would attempt to encourage her to bring it up or offer her a sugar candy. Apparently affected by hypoglycemia, she would object and become irritated and combative. “That’s how I could always tell she really needed help,” he said.
In 2014, the Bodnars moved to St. George. Gary commuted to Las Vegas for his job as a pharmacist. While he was at work on January 31, he received a call from St. George police. A friend who was checking in on Merilyn found that she had passed away. Suffering from hypoglycemia, she fell unconscious and was not able to get help. Merilyn was only 62.
Gary is grateful his wife didn’t suffer from a prolonged illness, but he feels cheated. He said she had done so well for a long time, and he was looking forward to retiring to spend more time with her. Gary retired on February 20.
For every person suffering from Type 1 diabetes and their families, there is a different story about living with this disease. All those stories have one thing in common, however. They face a life-long struggle to stay healthy and manage a disease we haven’t been able to cure— yet.