Resiliency and strength tame ‘uninvited visitor’ who never leaves

Mary Ann Morgan of London, who has lived with type 1 diabetes for 60 years, is among this year’s recipients of St. Joseph's Diabetes Half Century Awards.

Mary Ann Morgan calls it an “uninvited, unwelcome, very demanding, 24/7 visitor that wants its own way at any cost.”

She could have become a victim, says the Londoner, “or I could learn to live with it and become a master negotiator to keep it in check. So that’s what I did. The consequences otherwise would have been devastating.”

Fighting Type 1 diabetes for 60 years and counting

The “it” is type 1 diabetes – a disease Mary Ann has lived with for a remarkable 60 years. Diagnosed as a young teen in 1958, this mother and ‘Baba’ (grandmother) refused to let diabetes define who she was. Instead, with the help of many, the condition gifted her with resiliency and strength.

“This disease builds character. It strengthens the core of who you are if you don’t allow it to define you or run your life. It helped shaped who I am today.”

Mary Ann is among this year’s recipients of the Diabetes Half Century Awards presented annually by St. Joseph’s and Novo Nordisk Canada Inc. to patients with insulin-dependent diabetes who reach 50 or more years since their diagnosis. The patients, who are nominated by their endocrinologist, are honoured for their personal commitment and diligence in looking after their health, and for acting as a role model to all those living with the condition. Each recipient receives a print of London’s Banting House and a special medal to commemorate their achievement.

Support, advocacy key ingredients in success

In addition to insulin, Mary Ann points to support and advocacy as key ingredients in her success in living with diabetes. From her devoted parents and many mentors who never drew attention to her disease, to her endocrinologists and other care providers, to researchers, the pharmaceutical industry, and devices like disposable syringes, insulin pens, insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitoring that have revolutionized diabetes therapy – the common thread has been support and advocacy, she says.

Graduating high school as a top student, Mary Ann set her sights on nursing and applied to every single school of nursing in Montreal. None accepted her.  Her endocrinologist at the time couldn’t figure out why. He visited the director of nursing education at St. Mary’s Hospital in Montreal who confirmed that diabetes was the barrier to Mary Ann’s quest to become a nurse. Recognizing that discrimination was a barrier to equal opportunity for people with diabetes, he gently reminded the nursing director that he educates student nurses about diabetes, teaching them that those with the disease can live normal lives. He asked the director if he should stop doing so. Shortly thereafter, Mary Ann received a letter of acceptance and began her studies at St. Mary’s. She would complete her education at McGill University and become a registered nurse and health educator.

“Throughout my life I have been blessed with people who have supported me and advocated on my behalf,” says Mary Ann.

But it was her mother who had the most profound impact. At a time of glass syringes, urine testing to monitor blood sugar levels, and when every bite of food was carefully calculated, Mary Ann’s mother encouraged independence and fostered the fortitude needed to face the challenges of living with diabetes.

“When I was first diagnosed and came home with all the paraphernalia I needed, my father and brothers, who were squeamish, suggested I keep my needles in the bathroom or my bedroom. My mom informed all of us that my supplies would remain on the top shelf of the counter that separated our kitchen and dining room and that was where I would take my insulin. And that was that. She taught me that some decisions needed a firm hand while others could be negotiated. Her wisdom was so empowering.  Knowingly or unknowingly, my mom set the tone for living with diabetes when I was a young teenager.”

On this 60th anniversary of her diagnosis, Mary Ann is grateful to everyone who helped along the journey. “What an incredible team! Thank you.”

More memories of a 50-year journey with diabetes

At the 2018 Diabetes Half Century Award presented by St. Joseph’s Health Care London and Novo Nordisk Canada, each of the 17 recipients had fascinating memories of growing up when they knew few if any others with the disease, and when diabetes care and education was rudimentary. Here are just some of those memories:

Douglas Howe 

With diets much more rigid for people with diabetes five decades ago, Douglas remembers a rebellious spurt at about age 10, when he stole money from his dad and bought a bag of brown sugar. He grabbed a spoon and went to the shed to eat it. Remarkably, he was fine. “I must have run it off.”  His brothers, he recalls, blamed him for never having cake or other sweets in their house. 

Craig Collins

Craig remembers a fundraising raffle at school and being thrilled to win, until he found out that the prize was two giant chocolate bars, which he couldn’t eat. 

Donna Ferreira

Donna says “we’ve come a mile” when it comes to diabetes care. She remembers the chronic pain in her finger tips from repeated pricking, and fighting with her doctor over urine testing she felt was useless. “So I gave them up,”  she says of the urine tests.

Robert Grand

A high school teacher for 34 years, Robert made sure every student knew the danger signs of low blood sugar. If they noticed his hand writing on the black board become wavy and or his lesson muddled, they knew to send someone running to the cafeteria to get orange juice. He also kept jelly beans in his drawer. 

Terry Chardola

“The secret is discipline and a positive attitude,” says Terry. With those strengths, he adds, diabetes need not change your life “in any shape or form.”

Valerie Phillips

“Diabetes made me a stronger person, a better person, a more appreciative person.”

Mary Ann Morgan

“I’ve never been in a room with so many people with diabetes,” Mary Ann said at the awards ceremony. “Before my life ends, I would like to write a book about what they don’t tell you and the ways you can cheat and win!”

Alan Francis

“When I was a teen in 1955, there was not a lot of information on managing diabetes,” says Alan. “I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was going, but diabetes knew where it was taking me.”  

That journey would include eye complications, a heart attack, triple heart bypass surgery, and amputations of his toes. “Sometimes I wonder who is in control but I keep a positive attitude.”

Sharon Vitek

Sharon was born with diabetes and diagnosed at nine months of age when a coma landed her in hospital in Chatham. No one could figure it out, until a young medical resident from London came to the hospital and diagnosed her. 

Back to all Stories