Melody Conrad On Why Type 1 Diabetes Is Never a Limit to What's Possible

How were you diagnosed with type 1 diabetes?

I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes 19 years ago, on my 15th birthday.  I was a busy high school student and having blurred vision was getting in the way of everything (as was my thirst, hunger, and fatigue).  I thought I was missing some school to get a stronger prescription for my glasses.  If everything went according to plan, I’d be back for the second half of school, and home in the evening for some birthday cake.  Imagine my astonishment when the optometrist said I had cataracts.

I visited a series of doctors that day, and was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.  I stayed at the children’s hospital for a long time.  We learned about meal plans.  We practiced giving shots to oranges and well-worn Cabbage Patch Kids.  Then, with trembling hands (my Dad’s nearly unusable) my parents gave me shots.  My brother, on the other hand, seemed a little too eager at the idea of stabbing me in the arm.

My family was educated and released back into the wild.  We left the hospital armed with a meal plan, and tried our hand at eating breakfast in a restaurant.  We went to the zoo and got a taste of what life was going to be like for a diabetic –giving an insulin shot in public with curious onlookers slowing to gawk.

I suspect my parents were equal parts upset and happy to find out what was wrong with me.  However, my extended family held a grim picture of my outlook, colored by my grandmother who knew family members that had diabetes when she was a kid.  In her mind, and in the years when she was young, a diagnosis of diabetes meant certain blindness or limb loss.

It was an extremely strange interruption in the life of a busy 15-year-old, but in my opinion, not altogether unwelcome.  My unexplained thirst was quenched.  I could eat a meal and feel satisfied.  Best of all, I had energy again.  It was an enormous birthday gift –a new life.

What changes did you have to make after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes?

At first, my diet changed drastically.  I still remember the pink meal plans that hung on the refrigerator, dictating just how many carbohydrates, fruits, veggies, proteins, and fats I was allowed to eat per meal and per day.  My insulin dose was fixed, as was my food intake.  Looking back, I am amazed at how long I lived by such a rigid plan.

Later, I learned the magic of carb counting and felt like a normal person again. That is to say, I ate like a “normal” teenager who feels invincible.  While carb counting alleviated a majority of the spikes I had by eating a diet rich in Oreos and milk shakes, I was still spiking relatively high.

I’ve since learned about balance and timing.  It’s not a sugary teenage treat diet, but I’m certainly not perfect.  As long as a majority of my calories are coming from healthy foods, it’s ok to have a treat.  Also, while timing doesn’t seem like a factor in a regular diet, it is for a diabetic one.  Once I learned how many hours it took for my short acting insulin to peak, and understood what the timing did to my body, I was better able to calculate my meal timing, and the effects on my glucose.

 What recipes do you cook that are diabetes-friendly and the whole family loves?

I usually don’t place importance on finding “diabetic” foods that are expensive and use artificial sweeteners.  Instead, I like to focus on a variety of locally grown seasonal foods and simplicity (I’m no chef).  One recipe that my family loves and is friendly to the waistline is Weight Watcher’s Sweet and Sour Pork.  It is delicious and easy to prepare at home.

Another healthy snack my family enjoys is homemade juice.  The combinations are endless (you can even sneak veggies in without the kids noticing!) and it’s not like the sugar-filled juice from the store. This is a thicker, whole juice with more vitamins and fiber than the packaged variety.

What are your top five tips for diabetics and families of diabetics?

1. Embrace technology and learn how to use it to your advantage. When I was first diagnosed I had a syringe and the dreaded meal plan from my endocrinologist.  I’m now blessed with the freedom that an insulin pump provides.  It’s amazing to have a bolus wizard that does all of the math for me, based on what I’m about to eat, what my numbers are, and the amount of active insulin I already have in my body (to do that on my own I’d need a serious calculator and a few fact checkers!).  It’s also remarkable because there is an understanding that all eating situations are not equal.  I use the dual bolus and the square bolus for fatty foods like burgers and pizza, and other unusual situations.  I’m even able to account for hormonal-related highs with temporary basals the week before my period starts.

I’m not saying these things are easy to learn, or that they immediately fit into my life.  When I first got my insulin pump I felt like I was wearing a VCR on my hip.  My first attempt at the continuous glucose monitoring system left me feeling like a walking ICU with all of the beeping, alarms, and button pushing. However, after I gave it another try (with the help of a diabetes educator), I found it to be a valuable tool in determining how my numbers were trending.  If you make the effort, most of the time technology pays off.

2. Don’t prescribe limits to what’s possible.  Shortly after my diagnosis, I was in a doctor’s waiting room, and I noticed the cover of a diabetes magazine.  The lead story was about a bride who was a type 1 diabetic.  At the time, I didn’t understand that it was a feature about a gigantic wedding where the bride just happened to have diabetes.  I took it to mean that so few diabetic women actually got married, it was cover worthy that this one did!  It sounds silly now, but at 15-years-old, it was a real issue for me.  That concern snowballed and made new fears bubble to the surface.  How will I ever have kids? Will I have any fun at college or be too worried about maintaining strict control?  Is driving safe?  Can I still play high school sports?

It turns out you are only as limited as your thoughts.  I’ve since completed four half-marathons, traveled to Europe, worked as a lifeguard, swam in the Pacific with dolphins, enjoyed four years of college, married my best friend and had two beautiful babies, with much more to come!  That is a list I once thought impossible while looking at the face of a happy bride on a magazine.

3. Stand up for yourself. That doesn’t mean you need to fist fight those know-it-alls who want to tell you how to cure your disease.  Just use a selective ear and never allow someone to make you feel smaller. No one knows better than you do about your body and your experience.

4. Find an endocrinologist you like.  Treat your relationship with your endocrinologist like a relationship with a great friend.  If you are visiting a friend, you are more likely to keep appointments, listen to their advice, and open up about problems.  Besides, who wants to spend all those hours with someone you don’t enjoy?

5. “Don’t make perfect the enemy of good”.  This lesson from Voltaire is popular, and I think it applies perfectly to balancing diabetes.  I learned this from my endocrinologist when I was pregnant with my son.  My A1C was exceptional, but being an obsessed, overly-worried, first time mom, I was determined to push it lower and lower.  When he pointed out that such behavior was stressful to me and the baby and would inevitably end in a crash, I took the message to heart.

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