When Susan Huson was diagnosed with diabetes in 1967, the “good news”, she remembers being told, was that people with the condition could now live up to 50 years. She was 11 years old at the time.
“I did the math and thought, ‘well, I wouldn’t want to live to 61 anyway.’ It sounded so old. But here I am - age 61. It makes me happy to have reached 50 years living with diabetes. I love life. I have so much to live for that I need another 30 years.”
Susan is among this year’s recipients of St. Joseph’s Health Care London’s Diabetes Half Century Awards having lived well with diabetes for five decades. If she was diagnosed today, the “good news” would be very different. Susan would be told that people with diabetes are living long healthy lives – a testament to giant strides in care, knowledge and education.
The awards are presented annually by St. Joseph’s and Novo Nordisk Canada Inc. Patients with insulin-dependent diabetes who reach 50 years since their diagnosis are nominated by their endocrinologist. They 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.
This year, 24 individuals will receive the award, the largest group since St. Joseph’s began hosting the awards 14 years ago.
“We’ve had to move the ceremony to a bigger location this year,” says Dr. Irene Hramiak, Chief of the Centre for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism at St. Joseph’s. “It has gotten larger as we have more people marking this occasion. We care for more than 1,000 type 1 diabetes patients so it is wonderful that this year 24 individuals have reached this milestone. I hope we see a growth each year, indicating that type 1 patients are enjoying better health and more life.”
Susan was near death when diagnosed as a young girl, her signs and symptoms missed for weeks, even though her mom was a nurse. “There were five kids so all I can think was that my mom was distracted,” she says with a chuckle.
Her father, a Baptist minister, ran a camp during the summer and her mom was the camp nurse.
"I remember the thirst – I was so thirsty – and constantly trying to find cold water to drink,” recalls Susan. “The camp pumped drinking water up a hill to the dining hall where it sat in a reservoir, so it was never cold – not nearly cold enough to quench the thirst of undiagnosed diabetes. I would therefore go down the hill to the well, where there was a hand pump, and pump my little heart out, desperate for the ice cold spring water that flowed out.”
When the family headed to a Baptist conference in Muskoka where her father was speaking, a relative noticed how thin Susan had become. She had shed 20 pounds from her already-small frame. Susan was taken to a hospital in Huntsville, where her mother was told she had diabetes and to come back the next day. Her mother refused to take Susan out of the hospital. That night, her condition took a turn.
“They didn’t know if I would live or not. My father missed his talk and the conference turned into a prayer meeting for me.”
Susan rebounded but growing up in Rouyn Noranda, Quebec, there was no specialized diabetes care. Like all those with diabetes at the time, she relied on urine testing to monitor her blood sugar levels, not the most reliable method. Blood tests would be sent off but results would take a week, which did little to ensure good management of her condition. Once a year Susan would travel to Toronto, more than 600 kilometres away, for a week-long battery of tests to see how she was doing and have her treatment adjusted.
“Today, I can’t imagine not being able to properly measure my blood sugar levels,” says Susan. “I’m a fanatic about it. When I think back, I’m sure my blood sugars were high throughout my teenage years. I can remember not feeling well. And to think I went through three pregnancies without a blood glucose meter. It’s amazing how much easier it is today to look after myself, feel good and still enjoy life.”
Annette Sgromo is also somewhat surprised at her good health and longevity. When she became ill at age three, a doctor said she had the flu. She was treated for the flu until she slipped into a coma, at which point her mother was accused of overdosing her on cold medication. She was in a coma for five days and only diagnosed with diabetes after a lumbar puncture was performed.
Growing up, Annette’s mother warned her not tell anyone at school that she had diabetes for fear she would be treated differently. The only time Annette met other children with the condition was when she got out of school to attend diabetes management classes at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
“Having diabetes was a lonely thing,” recalls, Annette.
Annette remembers the instructor of the diabetes classes – pioneer Dorothy Gibson, the first coordinator and nurse educator at St. Joseph’s Diabetes Education Centre when it was established in 1973. Coincidently, she was also the nurse at Annette’s elementary school. Dorothy was the first person with insulin-dependent diabetes to be accepted into nursing and had a well-known motto: "The diabetic that knows the most, lives the longest."
When Annette reached 25 years of living with diabetes, she remembers wondering how much longer she had to live. “When I hit 50, it was ‘wow’. Growing up I didn’t hear of people living that long.”
But recipients of the Diabetes Half Century Awards often say that living well with the condition for five decades has taken much more than advances in medical care, the latest tools and diligent monitoring.
“Although control can be so much better today, a strong loving family, well educated in diabetes issues, is not only motivation but an important key to successfully living with this 24/7 condition,” says Susan, a grandmother of five who will be celebrating her 40th wedding anniversary this summer. “I have wonderful reasons to work hard to stay healthy.”