Lisa PetersonWhen I was eleven months old, I had just enjoyed my first Christmas when I came down with strep throat. My parents took me to the local hospital, which diagnosed the strep virus. To help prevent dehydration, they put flat 7-Up in my bottle and held me overnight for observation.

The next day I was released to my parents, who were horrified to discover I was unresponsive.

"She's just sleeping hard," the nurses told my frantic mother, but she insisted I be seen again by the doctor. When he finally made his way over to see me, a huge mistake had to be acknowledged. My blood test from the previous day was over 800 mmol in US measurements (over 40 in Canadian measurements I guess?), and the hospital had very effectively put me into a coma with the 7-Up supplement.

At this point the local hospital was beyond its medical abilities, and I was loaded into a sheriff's car with my mother while Dad drove behind us to the larger hospital 100 kilometers away. There, the specialist stayed with me 24/7 in the three days it took for me to be revived. And my life was changed!

Upon departing the first hospital, the doctor confidently stated to my mother, "She will always be a brittle diabetic." Not even sure what that meant, Mom did know it meant I would never return to that facility. Thanks to our local, country doctor, a better clinic was found to help ensure the future of this infant diabetic. The clinic was in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis, and a four-hour drive from our home. My new doctor's name was Donnell Etzwiler, a young, new doctor who had made it his mission to not treat juvenile diabetes by reacting to the symptoms, but to control the symptoms by helping his patients balance their diet, insulin and exercise.

Remember that this took place in 1968. At that point, the only blood sugar readings were obtained by drawing IV blood. My heavy syringe was made of glass, with a stainless steel needle that had to be sharpened frequently by my father. Both the syringe and needle had to be boiled before re-using, and then stored in a vial of alcohol. Mom would test my sugars by squeezing the urine out of my cloth diapers (no disposables for those either!), and the record-keeping began to balance insulin and food for a child who could not yet communicate if she was feeling bad.

Time pressed on, and Dr. Etzwiler was gaining renown with his clinic for creating a food system based on "exchanges" to help diabetic patients monitor their food intake. Food was not packaged with labels at that point, to indicate how many carbs or calories it contained. If you were lucky, it did list the ingredients, allowing consumers to tell how high sugar ranked in the contents for guidance in what might not be a good dietary choice. For instance, "Wonder Bread," a treat I only dreamed of having for lunch, was loaded with extra sugars in comparison to standard white bread.

Originally located at the St. Louis Park Medical Center, Dr. Etzwiler's diabetes education centre was soon moved across the highway to a huge new facility that is still world-known, as the International Diabetes Center.

However, as I progressed through school, taking part in a variety of activities but always passionate about my interest in horses which took up all of my out-of-school time, I had to part ways with what had become a mainstay in my life. Upon graduating from college with a liberal arts major, I launched myself on a summer internship to the unknown country of "Vermont." So far from my family and diabetes support system, I was now catapulted into being completely responsible for my own well-being, and creating a support network for myself.

The summer internship turned into a 12-year career, working for the American Morgan Horse Association. This pursuit found me jetting across the U.S. and on occasion Canada, to attend Morgan horse shows and run our promotional booth at equine events. It was a thrilling job for someone who lived and breathed horses, and came with it's share of diabetes challenges. By now though, I had access to the wonders of blood sugar monitors, disposable syringes, and a world of confidence that I could take on any challenge. Ah, the immortality of youth!

Fortunately, my missteps were few and manageable. On occasion a roommate would need to call 911 when I had overdone it at the boarding stable where I kept my own horse, and made the error of not eating enough to compensate for the calories my body continued to burn into the night. Remember there was no carb-counting still at this point, we were still on food exchanges! I suppose this accounts for why my body has become so finely tuned to the feelings of fatigue. Even if I truly am just tired, my metabolism screams at me to inhale carbs until that uncertain tipping point has been avoided. Although usually with a very high blood sugar level as a result.

After spending a year in Vermont, I realized this might be a permanent situation and I would need some medical support. So, I called the nearby university hospital and asked for a diabetes specialist. I suppose I had become a bit spoiled by the comprehensive, cutting-edge treatment I had received in Minnesota all those years, for the experience of explaining my life to the medical student and then the doctor left me feeling more knowledgable than they were. And when I exited the exam room to find the entire Endocrinology wing lined up to meet a 22-year long patient of the famous Dr. Etzwiler, I was flabbergasted! Talk about my ten seconds in the spot light!

Fortunately, the endocrinology department did improve after that, and I still chuckle at the specialist asking me, "Why are you even coming here? You know more about how to take care of yourself than we do! Come back whenever you want, but I don't expect to see you unless you have trouble."

Wow. Taking that doctor's guidance, I did stay pretty well removed from the clinic, unless I was having problems finding the right adjustment for my insulin.

So it was I became a bit of an independent diabetic, still feeling pretty immortal. Now my stable life took a bit of a bump, when I was introduced to a fellow from the GTA. One thing led to another, and before long I found myself migrating south, from Vermont, to a dream farm north of Toronto, Canada.

Upon discovering I was pregnant a few months after our marriage, I was now the frantic mother. How could a diabetic possibly have a healthy child? Fortunately, I was well behind the times on diabetic pregnancies. A specialist and local gynocologist were found as quickly as possible, and I navigated the rocky waters of sustaining a new life by keeping my blood sugars the most tightly controlled they have ever been. That went so well, I had a second child, and both are well and thriving on our small farm.

Shortly after my second child was born, I began having a variety of health problems. Burning skin rashes, loss of sensation in my feet, chronic diarrhoea, and exhaustion were attributed to a variety of things, but I knew it had to be complications of my diabetes. However, upon having my iron levels tested, it was discovered I was anaemic.

Further testing revealed that I have celiac disease, a complete intolerance to the gluten protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Thrilled at this diagnosis, as I was sure my lifelong partner had finally gotten the best of me, I adjusted my diet, once again, and have been going at 110% ever since.

And this leads to an amusing anecdote. My grandmother's family have all been long-lived, thriving into their 90s. I often joked that I must have gotten a double dose of their strong immune systems, as mine turned on my own body when I became diabetic. As fate would have it, my great aunt from this side of the family was also diagnosed with the Celiac immune disorder after having her children in the 1960s. So really, I wasn't too far off. Both long life and immune disease are in the genes!

As my marriage ended after seven years, I was launched into yet another life challenge: Not only supporting myself and two children, but dealing with the constant exhaustion of juggling so many balls at once. Fortunately I have always loved an impossible situation!

At this point I maintain my health by constantly checking my sugars (a continuous monitor is far beyond my means) and being exceptionally active. Still on the farm, I have indulged my farm girl tendencies by developing a growing business that produces pasture-raised chickens, eggs and pork for the health-oriented community, and I have opened a small farm store for people who have been searching for a local source for these products.

I also do property descriptions for one of Canada's top realtors, and produce a magazine five times a year for a Canadian horse association, keeping my horse knowledge alive and well. With both children in school, I am immersed in volunteer activities, including salvaging the weed-choked school gardens which I am especially proud of after three years of constant mulching, weeding and finding durable flowers for this high-traffic area.

You never know what life has in store for you when you land on this diverse planet, but it has been a lesson in amazement at the variety of approaches we have to living a long and fulfilling life. As a diabetic for 47 years now, I am not controlled by my disease but a companion to it. I have seen our approach change from one of suffering until the complications set in, to seeing people live with this condition as if it was a minor skin irritation. Science is getting closer to letting us live with a better treatment than the constant injections and finger-pricks.

When I was eight years old, I remember walking home from the school bus and gazing up at the fall foliage through my new glasses, and wondering if I could remember every little detail of the sun illuminating their colours, for when I lost my vision as I had picked up was very likely to happen when I got older. Today I am still wearing glasses and my vision is just fine, thank you ver much. But I still lose hours gazing (and listening and smelling) at the wonders of the world around me and finding my most effective place in it.

Lisa Peterson


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