Why die with diabetes?

Why should I have to live with diabetes?

That wasn’t the first question I asked when my doctor diagnosed that I had Type 1 diabetes. No, that was, ‘is there a cure?’

When he said, ‘no, you’ll have to live with it,’ that’s when I hit him with the second question.

I tuned out his answer when I realised it was a standard patter he gave every one of his customers, all those people before and now and to come who would guarantee the quality of his lifestyle on the strength (or should it be, weakness) of their illness.

People with type 2 diabetes are prescribed exercise, diet and medicine. The medicine, nine times out of ten, will be metformin or Glucophage, to give it its branded identity.

Diabetes, we are told, is a killer disease. Isn’t it ironic then that same drug on whom an increasing number of people around the world are dependent, is now being considered as a possible link to the secret of life and the end of death?

In Ireland, diabetes is considered a ‘long term illness’, i.e. no cure in sight and most likely, not even in contemplation. All my diabetes related medicines are free. Or, in other words, paid for by the State, the taxpayer. For 37 years, the first thing I do when I wake up is test my blood sugar level. Then I jab myself with two needles, a process I repeat at least three times a day.

If you had a free pass to a bottomless ATM, would you give it up? Diabetes is the access code to that ATM as the pharmaceutical industry found out a long time ago.

But now in this age of intelligent machines and the growing desire among some people to tackle the biggest disease of all – death.

The Longevity Fund is an American think tank and research facility dedicated to the death of death. There are pharmaceutical companies and medical research facilities trying to find cures for cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s but why, the Longevity Fund might argue, don’t they seek to halt the degeneration of human cells and take death off the agenda, entirely?

Most of the time, if you read the promotional material, death doesn’t even get a mention. They prefer to spin it more positively and call it the extension of life. Laura Deming, a New Zealand born MIT alumni who now leads research at the Longevity Fund, prefers to use the phrase ‘reversing the ageing process.’

That’s where metformin comes in. It prevents the excess release of sugars  into the bloodstream and slows, as a result, the turnover of cells. According to worldhealth.net, Metformin may promote anti-ageing,

To analyze the advantage outside treatment of diabetes, the Food and Drug Administration has green-lighted a clinical trial in the U.S. for what has become known as the Targeting Aging with Metformin (TAME) study. The researchers will give Metformin to about 3,000 elderly people, who either suffer from or have a high risk of developing diseases like cancer, heart disease, or cognitive problems. They’ll then track them over six years to see if the drug prevents aging-related diseases that were not pre-exsisting. They’ll also be looking to see if it prevents diabetes and lengthens their life spans. It will be a double-blind, placebo-controlled study.

So maybe my question should’ve been, why do I have to die with diabetes?

Hypo, no typo

Hypoglycemia occurs when your blood sugar gets too low. For a diabetic, it’s called diabetic shock and it’s no joke, if you’ve ever experienced it. As someone with hemochromatosis that has caused diabetes, I’ve been in that battle ground on several occasions. Two years ago, I published a crime novel, Tito’s Dead. One of the characters is a diabetic journalist who gets kidnapped by a gangster anxious to elicit some information from him. The character’s name is Garvan Deare and this is his experience.IMG_3813
Heels pulled into the wire and concrete fenced yard of the disused dockland warehouse, flush with confidence. As he swung the sleek Mercedes into a corner parking spot, he ran through his triumphant arrival in his mind’s eye.
He’d give it loads of ‘it’s-all-in-a-night’s-work, boss’ as he dropped his human booty at the feet of Joe Connolly. He couldn’t suppress the strut as he sprang from the big car’s cockpit and strode, keys jangling loudly, to the car’s trunk.
Deare will be a pushover, he thought, after a few slaps he’ll be singing and the boss’ll soon have this mess behind him.. And it would all be on account of him. Once more, he thought, he delivered for the boss and he’d be well rewarded for it.
But as he swung open the trunk door and peered at the curled body of the unconscious journalist something about the inert figure gave him cause for alarm.
Garvan Deare felt the first flush of diabetic disorientation while he was sitting in Madigan’s with Sandy Nelson.
It was a routine feeling and it came with the same familiar baggage: first, his peripheral vision began to play tricks as though what went on outside his sight line was happening at a different pace. The skin on the back of his hands gave him a pins and needles sensation that spread to his lips, tongue and mouth.
The third stage was unpredictable. It could come half an hour after the first began or might tumble straight after it or worse still, all three stages could happen simultaneously. All he could ever rely on were the first signs and that’s when swift action was needed. In the third stage he would lose control of his motor functions, stagger and gibber.
Deare left the pub with the intention of going straight home to gorge on a feed of brown bread, hummus and fresh fruit. The combination had always worked the trick for him, a combination of simple and complex carbohydrates. But all that was academic now.
He hadn’t made it home. Instead he woke in the dark, smelly confines of a car boot with a splitting headache and the realization that holding onto a coherent thought had become as tricky as picking up raindrops from a petal. The terror induced by his circumstances, the pain in his blood caked face and the hypoglycemic symptoms he displayed, were accelerating him towards a full blown diabetic turn. He could neither see to think nor think to see.
He lost horizontal and vertical control as his thoughts flew by like waste in a sewer. On top of that he could feel the approaching dim, envelop him, like a concrete waistcoat. He was only aware of the door opening because of the faint waft of fresh air. His eyesight was clouding, failing.

and later…

Garvan Deare stands in a crowded room of faceless people. It’s a long, wide room, with white walls. The ceiling is very close although from a distance it appears lofty and cavernous, distorting shapes and perspective. People shift about like a shoal of sardines. Deare tries to focus but he can’t see their faces. He thinks his sight’s failing, or the dull light is playing tricks. Occasionally, in the corner of his eye, he can make out a set of recognisable features, so he scrunches his eyes together and concentrates. Now he notices that for all this movement, he hears nothing. He tries to speak. He tries to reach out and touch someone. Nothing happens. He shuts his eyes and waits. When he opens them again the room is an empty blur.
Light from a street lamp filters through the grime of the skylight window in the ceiling. He’s sitting on a swivel desk chair with curved, padded arms that has seen better days. The padding on one arm has burst and someone has idly stripped it back to its wooden base. He tries to apply pressure to his foot, in an effort to move the chair, but soon realizes it has no legs and the heavy metal casters have long since seized with rust. His arms hang, like a discarded puppet, off the sides of the chair. The knuckles of his left hand touch the ground.
The bare walls are painted an institutional, snot green, colour. The desk in front of him is painted two shades of gunmetal grey. It has a smooth, modern top of  veneered chipboard.
Occasionally his mind slips into a giddy distraction, flitting about like the reflection of a shiny moving object on a ceiling. He knows the blow to the head has left him groggy but the dizziness comes from hypoglacaemia. He has no means to deal with it. He needs a quick sugar fix, a simple carbohydrate like a finger scoop of sweet jam, a Mars bar or an apple.
Sometimes, when these were not available he devises other means of maintaining his equilibrium and consciousness. One of these is minimal activity and slow but concentrated observation. So he studies the ripped and worn lino floor and notes the upside down coat hook on the back of the office door.
Then he hears a metallic click. He feels a slight breeze on his cheek but doesn’t move. He can barely contain his excitement as he feels the recovery of his senses, sensation and sound. Someone’s moving about nearby. He dares not open his eyes again. The sound is faint and distant, receding footsteps. He holds his breath.
When there’s no further sound and he can feel nothing else apart from that fleeting cold breath of moments earlier, he lets his eyes relax so the light seeps through his eyelids. He can see the room has changed. Or was this the room of his dream? Concentrate. Breathe. He’s slumped on a chair in a tiny empty office. The cavern has gone and so have the faceless people.
He doesn’t move. He waits while his mind reacquaints him with his body. He’s drained and exhausted but relieved he can still wiggle his toes in his shoes. His fingers send him contact signals. He can feel the trail of black, sticky blood on his face and the searing ache where his head has been struck, not once, he thought, but several times.
Disoriented, sore and tired, he sits motionless, struggling to gather his scattered thoughts amid the debris. Gradually, his thoughts return. He remembers walking home and stumbling into a car that appeared from nowhere. He remembers the bumping darkness in the car’s boot before he lost consciousness. Every thought struggles to hold a grip as he feels the cold fog descend again.

Everyone’s experience of hypoglycemia is different and everyone who does experience it, must learn to recognize the signs to counteract the effects as swiftly as possible. I was playing football on a beach in Minorca once. It was mid-summer, midday and very hot. 227772_6070022118_745167118_330822_6544_nAfter the game, my girlfriend noticed I was a little unsteady on my feet. She knew the signs and steered me in to a local, beachside taverna, grabbed a handful of pasta from a customer’s plate and stuffed it in my face. There was uproar but she saved my life, again. We apologised to the staff and the manager, paid for the surprised couple’s meal and left.

Everybody knows a diabetic, although they may not know it. Some diabetics don’t like to draw attention to themselves. But when the fog of hypoglycemia descends, anything can happen. Find out about it, ask your friend because when everyone knows what’s happening, there’s a better chance of a quick response and a good result.

Who eats iron?


Everyone absorbs iron in their diet. Some of us can’t get rid of it as easily as others. Are there do’s and don’t, a special diet, forbidden horrors? Simple answer: no, no and no.

Present a medical condition that has something to do with diet and all the crazies come out of the woodwork. Iron absorption is a natural function of the human body. In people with hemochromatosis, it just happens to hang around. That iron is absorbed through your diet but it doesn’t follow that a decrease in iron in your diet will, necessarily, decrease iron deposits in hemochromatosis.

All food groups have iron and we only absorb a small fraction of that iron. There is some speculation that the iron we absorb is of the heme variety, as opposed to the non-heme, but that research is inconclusive. There is another theory that a defect in hepcidin, a circulating peptide produced by the liver, is the defect in hemochromatosis that causes greater intestinal absorption of iron. Heme iron is more prevalent in red meat and vegetarians have lower serum ferritin levels and so the dots get joined and two and two can become five.




Iron supplements in food were introduced as a marketing gimmick in the 1950s and that’s about all it amounted to, a gimmick. Ok, don’t eat raw shellfish, not because of the amount of iron they do or do not contain, but more usefully because of other bacteria.

The one that really gets me going, though, is the assertion that cast iron pots could kill you. Well, I agree, if you want to swing a 12″ skillet at someone’s head. Those are heavy suckers. But absorbing killer levels of iron from a well seasoned skillet? Codswallop.

Look, the way I see it, is if you eat sensibly, you’re fine. Don’t take health supplements with concentrated iron and go easy on the vitamin c, particularly around meal time, as it facilitates the absorption of iron.

As a diabetic, my diet has always been based on three principles; low fat, no sugar, high fibre. Add plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit in to the mix along with a judicious balance of grains and nuts and you’re on a winner. Just because you have a condition with an iron overload doesn’t mean if you eat less iron, it will help you. Your body will still need iron and it will, if you’re eating a good, balanced diet, find it, too. The problem for people like us is getting rid of the excess, once the body has used what it needs.

I like to eat fish, particularly hake and mackerel. Coffee, I’m told, should be avoided but hell, Starbucks notwithstanding, I enjoy a sup of java. At the same time, a good friend of mine turned me on to Japanese Matcha tea that has a high tannin level, is an anti-oxidant and can lessen, if not entirely prevent, the absorption of dietary iron. And apart from anything else, a good cup of Matcha a day can get you involved in some wonderful tea making ritual.

Alcohol? ok, we should all drink less and yes, there is iron in beer and spirits, though a glass of wine is not to be sneezed at. I’m sure this has ruffled a few feathers but I don’t like fad food fascists. Eat sensibly and not in excess, you’ll be fine.

Please don’t take what you’ve read here as the gospel, according to how to behave with hemochromatosis. I’ve got my own problems to deal with and that involves staying healthy by eating as sensibly as I can. All I do is write about it.



Diabetes and other complications

When I was 38 and working every daylight hour and more to pay a mortgage on my first house, as well as feed and educate a young family, I got ill, something I could (pardon the pun) ill afford to do.

My weight was fluctuating, almost weekly. I was always thirsty, all the time and had taken to carrying a bottle of water around with me, long before it became a fashion accessory.


So I was visiting our family doctor, not for myself, but for my four year old daughter who needed a check up and a prescription for her asthma. While I was there, I mentioned my fluctuating weight and thirstiness to the doctor and he handed me a plastic cup and a litmus strip and asked for a urine sample. “You could pee on the strip, too,” he told me.

I did as he asked and he looked at the strip and frowned. I found out later the strip tested my urine for ketogenesis, a condition that, along with the other symptoms, might indicate some liver disorder and raise alarm bells and suspicions. He asked me to wait, a moment, in the reception area, while he made a quick call. Two minutes later he asked me to go home, pack a small bag and then go to the local hospital where I would undergo some tests.

If my urine had set off alarms, his urgency raised me to DefCon One. So I asked him to explain himself and he told me, ‘I think you have diabetes and I want to make sure.” So would I be in hospital, overnight? I asked. “No,”he said, “this will take a week.”

And why the urgency, I asked, is this life threatening or something? I asked, surprised by his haste and a little bit put out by the inconvenience it might cause me. “Yes, it is,” he told me, “particularly because of your age. It is very rare of someone of your age to manifest diabetes like this. You’re not overweight, even if your weight has been fluctuating and you’re fit enough.”

Later that week, when the first test results indicated I had type 1 or insulin dependent diabetes. There is a 7 in 100,000 chance of late onslaught type 1 diabetes in adults between the ages of 30 and 50.

This was discovered after a battery of tests that included blood and more urine tests and a liver biopsy. The rest of ther week was spent in nutrition training and gym sessions where I was put through a diabetes boot camp and the message was drilled home: no sugars or fats, lots of fibre and complex carbohydrates and planty of regular exercise. They gave me an orange and a hypodermic syringe full of water so I could practice injecting. Then they taught me to inject myself.

By the end of that week in hospital, my sugar levels were back to normal and so began a life of daily self medication. And this is where it gets really weird. It took another six years for the diagnosis of my haemochromatosis and the discovery that this had caused my diabetes.

Now, it appears, my diabetes can not be classed as type 1 or type 2, but a class of diabetes that can only be associated with haemochromatosis, somewhere between the two but because of my original diagnosis, I’ve had to maintain my administration of insulin.

So why, you might ask, was it not diagnosed the first time, the haemochromatosis not noticed and diagnosed, saving me a measure of future grief? Well, haemochromatosis symptoms often don’t manifest themselves until people are in their middle years or, at least, over 40.

But you got diabetes when you were 38 and that set off alarm bells? Yes, that’s true but many tests were done, particularly a liver biopsy, that showed no abnormalities in my liver function. What wasn’t done, though, because of the liver biopsy results, was a ferritin test. These days, this has changed and anyone manifesting diabetes, over 30 years of age, will automatically be given a ferritin test.

At the time, I thought, hey’ of all the long term conditions I could develop, diabetes isn’t the worst. Apart from the incovenience of constantly testing the sugar level in your blood and injecting yourself with insulin, a properly controlled diabetic lifestyle can be quite healthy, if you eat good and exercise, regularly.

Although, sometimes, even those can be inconvenient but, well, that’s a story for another blog.