Novelist, freelance writer, media-prize winner, golden girl: meet 27-year-old Bridget McNulty, inspiring all-rounder and type 1 diabetic.
I meet Bridget in a noisy Green Point restaurant. We struggle to introduce ourselves amid the sounds of a strike, a traffic jam and a builder's drill, but she immediately seems familiar, like a friend I've known for a long, long time.
Her colourful words flow easily.
Without much prompting she tells of how she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes two years ago, how she tackled the associated challenges heads-on, and how she now can't wait to board a plane in two months' time that will take her on her first leg of a journey around the world.
The part of the journey that excites her isn't the exotic cities on her itinerary, but the rare chance to share her story with other diabetics. She's been in touch with a number of diabetes associations as far afield as Cambodia and Chile, and is now making the final arrangements for a talk tour.
From what she says, it's clear that in "life according to Bridget", there really are no limits. Just because you're a diabetic, doesn't mean you can't live life to the full.
No time to slow down
Bridget has always been a go-getter. In an article she wrote for Real Simple magazine, for which she was awarded the Novo Nordisk Media Prize for reporting on diabetes, she tells how she's always placed huge expectations on herself: head girl, top of the class, lead roles in school plays. Bridget did it all, and she did it well.
In 2005, after completing a degree in creative writing in the US, Bridget returned home to her parents in Durban. Soon after touching down, she started working on a novel, the idea of which was born while she was still studying.
Strange Nervous Laughter (Oshun Books, 2007) was published a few months later. Again, Bridget didn't rest, and her remaining energy was channelled towards marketing her novel online. "I was working myself to shreds," she admits, noting that she had also just moved to Cape Town and started working full-time.
Exhaustion slowly crept up on her – after all, she had accomplished what few other 25-year-olds would have been able to do. Eventually, Bridget became so incredibly tired that she had to rest all the time, even after taking a shower. It was at this point that she realised something was seriously wrong.
Bridget landed in ICU a mere two weeks after the launch of her novel. While she was marketing it, irreparable damage to her pancreas was underway, and when her blood-sugar level was first tested by a Cape Town doctor, it clocked in at a dangerous 24. "I was two days away from a coma."
Her diagnosis was a shock, yet there were signs of her underlying condition months before she was admitted to hospital. At a Camps Bay picnic with friends, she remembers being excessively thirsty, gulping down a litre of juice, only to urgently need the loo a few minutes later. Upon returning to her friends at the picnic, she felt tired and weak, and needed to lie down.
At the time, however, Bridget didn't heed the warning signs. Also, as she was experimenting with a heal-yourself, alternative-health approach at the time, no medical doctor initially picked up on her condition. Soon she had lost 10kg, and was tired, weak, ravenously hungry and confused.
"My bones were sticking out and it felt as if I had lost my femininity – I never knew that being thin could be so ugly. I also had other crazy symptoms, like leg cramps and candida in my mouth. I thought that if I just ignored these things, they would go away. And the thought of finding a doctor just seemed too overwhelming."
Bridget's mom had her flown back to Durban as soon as the diagnosis was made in Cape Town. Time was running out and she had to get treatment as soon as possible.
After spending three days in ICU, coaxing her body back to life, doctors sent her home with literature on diabetes that "scared the living hell" out of her. It was all doom and gloom, she says: how diabetics can lose their sight, their feet, their quality of life. She remembers being particularly appalled by the news that 70% of all amputees are diabetic.
But one step at a time, while she was lovingly looked after by her parents, Bridget recovered. A change was also taking place within her: she knew that it was time to slow down and be kinder to herself.
Bridget admits that the adjustments to her lifestyle were initially quite challenging – even though she now has her condition under wraps. "My saving grace is that I've never felt like a patient."
Her diet has changed and she focuses on eating low-GI foods. Her love of all things sweet also had to be curbed. "Fortunately, I never used to drink alcohol, so that part was easy."
Injecting insulin four times a day, and keeping her blood-sugar levels under control, also proved easier than she thought it would. "I've always been a control freak, which is quite handy if you have diabetes. There are, of course, many external factors that you can't control, but this has taught me that I can't always plan ahead. I had to learn to go with the flow."
Bridget also learnt that she can't keep up the pace she was used to before. She pays attention to how she feels, because when she doesn't look after herself, her blood-sugar plays up – a factor that's forced her to live more healthily.
Don't give up
Bridget's partner, Mark Peddle, whom she fortunately knows "inside out", will tour with her in September.
She knows that the travelling will wear her out, and that the trip will pose many challenges – to her condition and to their relationship. Time differences, too little sleep, less exercise than she's used to, and a taxing schedule will no doubt affect her blood-sugar and energy levels. "I'm also completely a 'home body', and I know that at times I won’t feel like travelling. But we’re really excited about it."
Nonetheless, Bridget and Mark plan to channel as much energy as they can muster into the project, and hope to highlight the good work that's being done by diabetes associations around the world. She also hopes to inspire other diabetics with her positive approach to life.
"Diabetes is a scary condition, and it's with you forever, but we want to show people that there's another side to it. It's on days when your diabetes gets you down, when you just want to say 'it totally sucks', that you shouldn't give up."
Most of us have a chronic condition of some description. "Whatever you have, don't choose the easy route," Bridget says. "Choose the healthy route, and work at it every day."
As we say our goodbyes on the busy street corner, I can't help feeling just a tad in awe of this vibrant woman. While her condition isn't contagious, her lust for life most definitely is.
- (Carine Visagie, Health24, July 2009)
Visit Bridget and Mark's Round-the-World website at www.justtheplanet.com or follow Bridget on Twitter @bridgetmcnulty.