Being diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes in the 1970’s was very different than it is today. They had insulin (beef and pork derived), glass syringes, urine tests (blood glucose home testing had not been developed) and a list of foods you could and could not eat. That was about it. Looking back now, it really seems we were in the dark ages in terms of how we manage it now.
I remember Labor Day Weekend in 1970 like it was yesterday. We were new to California, transplants from the East Coast. Mom and Dad, six kids and a dog living in a small rental house while waiting to move into our new home which was under construction. I was ten, about to turn 11 and looking forward to moving into our new house and starting sixth grade at the new school three blocks away. But life had other plans. We’d had a busy summer. My Dad was in a new job and my Mom was home managing all six of us kids. My little brother was six, then me, three older sisters and my big brother who had just gotten our of the Army. Everyday was packed with summer activities – swim lessons, library, trips back and forth to the new house to carry over boxes and supplies. On weekends we’d go to the beach, the Sierras, or the State Fair.
It was wonderful. Until about August. Suddenly I was thirsty – all the time. I was active and it was hot. Back then there was no internet and most of our time was spent playing outside. My being thirsty didn’t really raise a red flag with my Mom. She just thought we needed more to drink and so she’d mix up another pitcher of Kool-Aid. I downed glasses of the stuff which meant I had to go to the bathroom a lot. Again, no one really noticed. With six kids, someone was always in the bathroom. Then towards the end of August I got sick. So did one of my brothers and one of my sisters so my Mom chalked it up to a summer flu. It ran it’s course for my brother and sister but not for me. My stomach began to hurt and and I felt achy. I was still thirsty and preferred something to drink over anything to eat. I was also losing weight.
Going into Labor Day weekend I woke up one morning vomiting. I would just get over a bout, have something to drink and then feel sick all over again. My parents growing increasingly concerned, decided to take me to the Doctor. Back then, it was a big deal to go to the Doctor. You had to be pretty sick in my family to warrant a trip like that. My parents must have suspected something was very wrong and it couldn’t wait through the weekend. The Doctor’s office was closed and the only thing open on weekends would be an emergency room. My Mom, worried over my fever and vomiting, constant thirst and now, noticed weight loss- packed me into the car and my Dad (retired military) drove us to the nearby Air Force base. They had an ER and he knew it would be open.
At the ER, my symptoms somehow fast tracked me to the front of the line. I think a child continuously vomiting will do that. The next few hours were a blur. I was in agony by now. Constant vomiting, stomach cramps, so very, very thirsty. We wouldn’t know it for a few more hours but I was in Diabetic Ketoacidosis. Looking back I realized now how fortunate I was to have a Dad who was able to access a military hospital. Doctors there see everything. It didn’t take long for my symptoms to register with them. Blood tests were ordered, IV started. Within hours my labs came back with a reading somewhere in the 1200’s. normal is closer to 80 mg/dl. I remember needle sticks, voices, concerned faces and then going to a hospital ward. If I had been more aware I’m sure I would have been pretty upset but I just wanted to go to sleep. I was lapsing into a comatose state. I remember lying in a bed, with bright lights above and Doctos and nurses surrounding it. I remember being so groggy and a nurse slapping my face telling me I must stay awake and not to fall asleep. More vomiting. More needle pricks and then nothing.
I awoke in the morning to a surreal scene. A lab technician was pricking my finger for blood. I looked up and saw a glass bottle hanging above the bed with a tube snaking down into my arm. I felt so outside of my body. A nurse came in and began to clean me up. I was covered in sweat, vomit and blood. I was ten and I should have been freaked out but it didn’t seem real. I knew I was in a hospital, I remembered my Dad taking me into the ER the day before and laying on a gurney but everything was fuzzy after that. Now I was waking up to this – strangers in my room, procedures being done and suddenly it hit me and I was scared. Tears started rolling down my check. “Where are my parents?’ I remember sobbing. The nurse was very kind and continued cleaning me up. She assured me they were outside the room and would be in after talking to the Doctor. She changed me into a clean gown and then changed the bed and propped me up with some pillows.
I was still kind of out of it but I had a new concern. I was starving! I asked the nurse if I could have anything to eat and I remember she smiled and went out of the room. A moment later she came in with a big tray. There was jello and chicken broth and toast and tea. It wasn’t a feast but I was famished and suddenly, anything looked good. I wouldn’t know till later that the IV in my arm was not only giving my much needed fluids but an insulin drip as well. I was feeling better because my blood sugar was coming down from the incredible high of the day before. I dug into the dishes on the tray and it was soon gone.
I heard new voices in the hall and suddenly I knew my parents were there. My Mom and Dad in true military style had been banished from the peds room I was in until visiting hours were started for the day. This was 1970 and parents simply were not allowed to stay with their child for any reason outside of visiting hours. To this day I do not know if they stayed overnight at the hospital the previous night. I never asked and now they are long gone so I will never know. But they were here now and that’s all that mattered that morning. They hugged me so tight. I did learn later that it was not known if I was going to make it the night before. I think everyone was a little in shock that not only did I make it but I was sitting up devouring the hospital breakfast tray.
Several Doctors came in with my parents and came over to my bed. They explained what was happening to me and why I was in a hospital room and then they said words I didn’t understand at the time but which I’ll never forger. “You have diabetus mellitus”, they said carefully. “Your pancreas does not make insulin anymore. You need insulin to live. You will have to take insulin shots every day for the rest of your life”.
A Different Life…
My life that morning took a drastic turn. Yesterday I was a normal girl – this morning I had diabetes. I couldn’t take it all in at the time. I remember the Doctors pulling my parents aside and talking to them about all the things I could and could not do. My parents never knew but I heard everything the Doctors said. I heard I might go blind, I heard I might lose a limb, I heard about shortened life expectancy but all I really focused on was that I would have to take shots every day. For a 10 year old kid, it seemed there could be nothing worse.
I am a little envious of newly diagnosed diabetics today. Diabetes is managed with pumps and CGM’s and blood glucose meters. All foods can be eaten in moderation as long as carbs are accounted for. The prognosis is better now for a life with fewer complications as long as Diabetes is controlled and managed.
It was different in 1970. There were no BG meters for diabetics to use. We tested our urine for glucose! It was an ‘after the fact’ way to test something. Back then you took a sample of your own urine in a little cup then you took 5 drops of it and put it in a test tube. To that you would add 10 drops of water, then add a clinitest tablet to the vial and watch the chemical reaction as the tablet sizzled in the test tube. After a minute the mixture would turn a color in the tube and you could guestimate what the glucose level in your urine was. A blue color meant no sugar in the urine, green meant a trace amount, yellow a moderated amount and orange, a maximum amount. I don’t know if if I was ever told what amounts of glucose corresponded to the the colors. I do know that it was very good to have a blue or green color in the test tube. Yellow and and orange were bad. Not that they were really that helpful because urine lagged behind blood glucose. High levels of sugar in the urine didn’t necessarily mean high blood glucose levels and vice versa. But in 1970, that was all we had and the doses of insulin I would take would be based on those readings.
The first few days, the nurses gave me the insulin shots I needed each day. They were mixes of long and short acting beef/pork insulin and they had glass syringes and huge needles. I hated shots. All kids did. I thought it was awful to have them several times a day. But it got worse. After a couple of days, a nurse walked in with a tray with two vials and a syringe and told me from then on I would be doing my own shots! Did I mention I was ten? I burst into tears. No way, was I going to do that! But these were military nurses, I should have known better. “Fine”, she told me. “When you take your shot, you can have your breakfast. We’ll hold it at the nurses station.”. I stared at the syringes and vials. The nurse softened a little and actually put her arm around me. She told me that she knew this would be hard but it was something I would have to do the rest of my life. I would have to do start sometime and ten was a good age to learn.
I watched her draw up a syringe and demonstrate how to give the shot in my thigh. I could smell the breakfast trays going up and down the hallway. I was so hungry. She put the syringe in my hand and made a fist around it. She had me pinch up my skin with the other hand. She guided my fist with the syringe and plunged it into my thigh. Together we pushed the plunger and we were done. She was happy but I was a mess. “Every day”, I asked. “Every day”, she said.
Back then, you could be hospitalized a long time when you were diagnosed. Because I had been in Ketoacidosis, I stayed in the hospital for two weeks till I was stable enough to go home. It was a pretty intense experience with a lot of teaching about urine testing, insulin shots and what foods I could and could not eat. Food was counted as “Exchanges” and you were given a diet plan to follow. My parents came daily, more often, my Mom – and that helped to have that support. Visiting hours were limited and I was so homesick each night when they went home. At the end of two weeks, it was decided I could finally go back home and begin my new life with Diabetes.