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Welcome Guest Blogger Sue Ann Bowling Sharing Her Story of Diabetes

Monday, November 21, 2011
Sue Ann Bowling earned her A.B in Physics from Harvard/Radcliffe in 1963, and her PhD in Geophysics from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1970. She stayed at the University of Alaska's Geophysical Institute until retiring in 1998. She still lives in Alaska, in a suburb of Fairbanks called North Pole.

Homecoming, her first novel, came out in 2010 and has begun gathering enthusiastic readers and critical acclaim. Tourist Trap begins a year and a half after Homecoming ended.

For more information, visit her website.

Sue Ann Bowling: My Story 

Forty-two years ago I was told I had diabetes...

I'd been incredibly thirsty all summer, and the campus doctor finally sent me into town for an early-morning fasting glucose test, "to rule out diabetes." That afternoon he called. "The test was positive. Go to the hospital. Now!" Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200. Do not even stay for the Thursday afternoon seminar. Your fasting blood sugar was 200, it jumped to 400 and sat there, and you had chili for lunch? I'm sure it never occurred to him that I'd drive myself to the hospital.

At that time diabetes came in two flavors, juvenile-onset and adult-onset, and at 28 I fell in the crack between them. Today we talk about Type 1 (failure to make insulin) and Type 2 (insulin-resistant), argue about exact definitions, and recognize that Type 1 may develop as late as 50 or 60 while Type 2 is becoming increasingly frequent in children, but in the late 60's things were simpler. If you got diabetes as a child you needed insulin shots for the rest of your life; if you got it as an adult it could be managed with pills. I was stabilized with insulin shots for a couple of days in the hospital and sent home. Later we found that pills didn't work.

Diabetes, as I’ve said elsewhere, is defined by high blood sugar. Insulin counters that, but too much insulin can lead to low blood sugar, also called insulin shock. My “education” at the hospital consisted of being handed a lot of printed information, mostly on what I could and (sob) could not eat. I was released on Saturday with instruction to see the doctor on Monday. By two hours after I was released from the hospital, I was in insulin shock. Luckily the handouts had described the symptoms (shaking, sweating, blurred vision) well enough that I knew I had to eat, immediately.

At that time blood glucose measurements were carried out in the laboratory and took several hours. Glucose in the urine could be measured, but urine tests measure at best what your blood sugar has been for several hours before the test. I used Tes-Tape To measure urine glucose for a while, but soon gave it up. What was the use when the tape showed dark green (maximum sugar) when I was clearly in insulin shock? Bad enough that my fingers were frequently burned from trying to reassemble a freshly-boiled glass syringe—and no one ever told me it was possible to resharpen those needles.

Twenty years later my fingers were still sore, but for a different reason. I had my first home glucose meter! The accuracy was much better than Tes-Tape, but because this was a blood test, it took blood. Which meant pricking my fingers. Even when I had the meter, I didn’t test as often as I should have. After all, I hadn’t been told, at the initial diagnosis or afterward, about all the side effects that can affect people with diabetes, and it was just being found out that keeping blood glucose under control greatly reduced those side effects.
Sometime in the early 90's I started having black floaters in my eyes. "Diabetic retinopathy--bleeding from hemorrhages on the retina," the eye specialist said, and began treating them by laser burns to the retina. This is a scary process. With a lens against the front of the eye holding your eye open, you have to keep your eyes fixed on a specific point while the laser flashes in your eyes--as many as a couple of hundred pinpoint burns in a session. At that point I started really paying attention to the glucometer readings--but it didn't help much. I could easily drop as much as 100 mg/dL an hour for no obvious reason. (A healthy person's blood sugar may range from 70 to 140 mg/dl, so 100 mg/dL is a large change.) My blood sugar could come up even faster after eating. And one day, instead of a small floater, I had what looked like a black caterpillar in the less lasered eye that rapidly expanded to leave me blind in my right eye.

I wound up with two vitrectomies in that eye. As part of the second, the outer edge of the right retina was so heavily lasered that my peripheral and night vision in that eye were destroyed. That scared me enough that I started keeping closer track of my blood sugar. But the best I could do was keep it under 300. Most of the time, and I was having far too many episodes of low blood sugar even to do that. My doctor had me write down everything I ate for a week, and he could make no more sense of my blood sugar than I could. He suggested an insulin pump, but he’d never prescribed one before. Mayo Clinic said no, it would increase my chances of insulin shock.

Wrong. When I finally got a pump, it greatly reduced my shock episodes. Why? All my doctors to that point had prescribed fixed doses of insulin. Even when I went onto Lantus (supposedly level absorption over 24 hours) and fast-acting insulin before each meal I had a choice of going to bed high or waking up high in the morning. The pump told me why. The pump replaces Lantus with what is called basal insulin (covers basal metabolism) and individuals vary in how their need for basal insulin varies over the day. Turns out mine varies almost twofold between midnight and 8 am. With the pump’s programmed variation in basal insulin not only did my blood sugar level out, I was able to reduce the amount of insulin considerably and no longer had to eat to keep from going into insulin shock. I lost 30 pounds before I even realized I was losing weight.

I still have diabetes, I still have to weigh everything I eat, and I am still compulsive about reading nutrition labels. But I have every intention of winning my 50-year medal. After all, I’ll only be 78!

Disclaimer: The opinions in this blog post should in no way be construed as medical advice. It is strictly the author's personal opinion's.  

Please visit Sue's blog and leave your comments.


  1. My grandmother got it in her sixties... so did my mother.

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