I am a Northern Irish student living with type one diabetes , a disease of the pancreas. I am writing this article to address the complicated needs of a diabetic.
Anytime I imagine any kind of social occasion, I hear a voice in my head, “You can’t eat that!” “She’s on a diet!”
Subconsciously, it’s the voices of my family looking out for my health by not raising my blood sugars. I didn’t realise how this would effect my own self-esteem. I personally have always been very independent and make my own choices throughout my life. However, being type one diabetic has left me feeling trapped in so many situations. I believe people need to be more considerate of the topic, as this is can be a sensitive issue to some diabetics. Mainly, people don’t have an understanding of diabetes and how to control blood sugar levels.
I recall being on at a family birthday party just after being diagnosed. I was offered a piece of birthday cake, but, wanting control over my sugars, I refused. My dad said I was on a special kind of diet and I was too shy to explain myself. It was a definite learning curve for myself to try and educate other people to be more understanding of diabetes.
Time Consuming Hospital Appointments
I am currently studying a Master’s in English Literature, whilst working part-time as a tutor online. I find the management of diabetes very time consuming, especially attending hospital appointments and constantly attending check-ups. Arriving at my daily check-up, I’m always warmly greeted by my diabetic specialist team who usher me around all the different professionals. First, weight and blood pressure check. Next, a dietician who checks I am eating the right foods. Then onto the doctor who will check my blood sugar levels and advise on my insulin ratios.
The main support system would be the diabetes team. The team is sensational and always offer the best emotional and practical support. Especially over lockdown, appointments are made by phone call and there is always someone to look over any issues. As I am a Master's student, managing appointments hasn’t been too strenuous as my studies typically involve evening classes. However, I have completed a degree (pre-pandemic) so I know how challenging it can be attending daily hospital appointments whilst handing university and a part-time job.
As well as the diabetes team, there are always people closer by to support you. I personally do talk a lot to my close friends and family about my diabetes. If I’m having a bad day and have high blood sugars, I get so frustrated with myself. I normally talk with my mum and she goes through any possibilities where I might have gone wrong.
The university is also very considerate. They has a support plan in place for students with diabetes. For example, if you had a high blood sugar this would affect concentration levels. The university had a LSP (learning support plan) in place so that you can get extra time for essays and assignments.
I remember in my undergrad years, a friend of mine was wondering why I had a mini-fridge in my room. As a diabetic, I needed this to store my insulin and hypo emergency pen as these items most be kept in cool conditions. She was a little bit drunk, so she she opened my fridge and placed her drink inside. I couldn’t stop laughing!
It can be upsetting to see others eating or drinking (especially alcohol) whenever they choose to. As a diabetic in university, you should avoid high sugar content drinks but the issue here is that alcohol actually lowers the blood sugar at the same time. Confusing right? I guess there is a little bit of jealousy behind this, but then again, there are far health condition than diabetes. Diabetes is manageable and the control is in your hands.
I regularly have to haul at least three bags of medication home from the chemist. Diabetes is a manageable condition, however to manage this disease is time consuming and inconvenient. There is so much medication and equipment needed to support a diabetic.
Insulin pumps, insulin injection pens, insulin syringes, blood sugar testing strips, blood lancets, sharpe's bins, blood sugar mentors, ketone testing strips, medical alert bracelets. The list is endless.
The main medication for diabetes is, of course, taking your insulin. Some people think you are injecting illegal drugs as they jump to all sorts of conclusions when they see a needle! I remember I was eating lunch one time at university and I didn’t want to go to the toilet just to inject myself, so I just injected in front of people. This personally doesn’t bother me, but I guess people make assumptions and think you are sort some of ‘druggie’!
This is the most important part of looking after diabetes: Glucose levels must be kept within a certain level (4-7mmol). Blood sugar levels must be checked on a regular basis, usually 6-8 times a day. The more you check, the more control you have. If you are above 7mmol, that will cause a hyperglycaemia; tiredness, blurry vision, confusion. Being below 4mmol will cause a hypoglycaemia: physical shakes, exhaustion, weakness, and sometimes, loss of consciousness. All of these distressing symptoms cause physical and mental side effects. Controlling your sugar levels can be very time-consuming at university. I advise checking before lectures, but if you feel you need to re-check during class time, I’m sure tutors would be understanding!
High sugar levels can be lowered by taking additional insulin or physical exercise, however, low sugar levels can cause unconsciousness if left untreated. If you see a diabetic collapsed and you suspect low blood sugar you should check for a medical alert bracelet and contact an ambulance or trained medical professional right away.
A diabetic should also be carrying hypo-gel ‘Glucogel’ which can be inserted into the gums of their mouth or a ‘Glucagen’ injection (this should be inside an orange box). If you're drinking alcohol and you have a hypo on a night out, make sure a friend is aware of your condition and knows what to do if you are unconscious. Make sure you carry hypo-gel or the Glucagen injection in your bag, somewhere safe and easily accessible. Fluctuations in blood sugar levels can cause complications further down the line. Therefore, it is important that diabetes is managed correctly.
Diabetes is a very common medical condition and is separated into two categories; type one diabetes or type two diabetes. I classify as a type one diabetic because my pancreas no longer produces insulin. Type two diabetes is when a person doesn’t produce enough insulin. Humans need insulin for our bodies to produce energy and function normally. For type one diabetics, insulin must be injected into a fat layer into the skin using an insulin pen. I feel a lot of people believe this hurts. Trust me, it doesn’t! The needles are very fine and I guess as a diabetic we get used to it.
I joined a CHOICE programme shortly after I was diagnosed when I was around 11 years old. This was a life changing moment for me and I didn’t realise it. Making sure you count the amount of carbohydrates and glucose is vital for making sure you inject the correct amount of insulin. As a diabetic this can improve my diabetes a lot and my sugar levels are much more manageable.
No One Is Perfect
Managing diabetes is a strenuous process. Controlling blood sugar levels, taking the correct amount of insulin and carbohydrate counting is very demanding, especially while balancing university and other life struggles. As a diabetic, I make mistakes all the time. It is all about trying your best and staying as healthy as possible!
I hope this has raised further educational awareness of what diabetes is and sends out a message to other diabetics that you are never alone. Remember stay in contact through online networks (Insulin Nation), family and friends, your university and your diabetes team. They are all there to help you.
Hannah Davison is an MA English Literature student at Ulster University. She is obsessed with saving the eco-system and enjoys long walks in her spare time.