She displayed the classic warning signs of diabetes: being thirsty all the time, feeling tired, irritable and constantly hungry, and urinating frequently.
"Even though I was already toilet-trained, I started wetting my bed again at night, and peeing in my pants during the day," Camilla told journalists at a recent media event at Steno Diabetes Centre in Copenhagen, Denmark. "My parents got very worried and took me to the doctor where I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes."
Type 1 diabetes is a disorder of sugar metabolism in which the pancreas is no longer able to produce insulin. Previously called juvenile diabetes, it is usually diagnosed in children and young adults, and requires patients to take insulin for the rest of their lives, in order to control their blood sugar levels.
Today, at the age of 35, Camilla is a model diabetic patient, managing her health responsibly and enjoying a good life. However, it wasn’t always like that. Camilla has had to overcome many difficulties along the way, especially during her rebel teenage years.
After being diagnosed, Camilla and her family struggled to adjust to her new lifestyle with diabetes, having to test her blood sugar levels frequently and administer insulin at regular intervals. “Even though my family was very supportive, it was difficult and at the hospital I was always yelled at because my blood sugar levels were not good enough,” Camilla remembers.
“When I reached my teenage years, I decided I had had enough. I was tired of being told what to do and I wanted to live a normal life, like my friends. So I did something really stupid and stopped taking my insulin and measuring my blood sugar.”
Camilla soon became very ill – so ill that she nearly lost her life. “I was 15 at the time and attended a party where I drank way too much alcohol. As I had ‘forgotten’ to take insulin, I got really very sick and vomited for three days.” Her parents realised it was more than just a hangover and rushed her to hospital.
“The doctors later told me that, had I arrived at the hospital two hours later, I would have gone into a coma and never woken up again. I was really shocked,” Camilla says.
Camilla resumed taking responsibility for her diabetes and taking her insulin regularly. Everything went well until she left for college.
“I moved away from home and thought I could take care of myself. I enjoyed my student life and also travelled a lot.”
However, soon the Steno Diabetes Centre started warning her about her high cholesterol and blood pressure and the condition of her eyes. (Having diabetes can put you at a higher risk for heart disease and can also affect your kidneys, nerves, feet and eyes.)
The complications eventually caused her to turn blind for a year. “After returning from a six-month stint in Israel, I woke up one morning and discovered that I could not see. Imagine waking up and all you can see is darkness.” Being blind was a major challenge for her, especially in her studies. “I walked into doors, took the wrong trains, bought the wrong groceries and had to have my books read to me on tapes.”
She underwent a series of six operations on her eyes to get part of her sight back. With each eye operation her eye sight improved. “I hated those operations. Because with each one it felt like I had to start all over again and rebuild myself.”
She was lucky, though, and today Camilla is partly-sighted. She was able to complete her studies as a social educator in nutrition and exercise, and has found a job as educator of kids aged four to six years old. She also does much work to raise awareness about diabetes among young and old. “I have dedicated my life to eating well and exercising and educating others.”
The quality of her life has improved vastly since she started using an insulin pump around six years ago. “The insulin pump has changed my life.”
An insulin pump is a small device about the size of a cellphone that is usually clipped to a piece of clothing (such as a pocket or belt). It has a tiny computer that is programmed to automatically inject insulin (via a catheter) into the body as needed. It can also be adjusted, should an individual need more insulin, for example during exercise.
Being a very active person, the insulin pump has helped to simplify Camilla’s life, especially during her travels. “When I still had to inject myself with insulin, I once lost my last insulin, when my bag was stolen on a trip with friends in Prague. It was a real mission to find a pharmacy and some insulin late at night.” Having an insulin pump, however, has also caused for some commotion once at Egypt airport when security police thought her insulin pump was a bomb. “When they took the time to read my doctor’s letter explaining my insulin pump, they finally calmed down,” Camilla laughs.
“In my three decades of living with diabetes, I have learned a lot about my condition and especially about myself. It has made me who I am today and taught me how precious life is.”
Camilla recently celebrated her 30th anniversary with diabetes by inviting her friends and family to a champagne brunch. “I love my life. Despite all the challenges I’ve had to overcome, I think my life is amazing. I intend to live a long and happy life. I think I’ll live until I’m 105 years old,” she laughs.
- (Health24, October 2012)
(Birgit Ottermann recently attended a Media Conference on Diabetes in Copenhagen, as a guest of Novo Nordisk, one of the world's major insulin producers.)
Diabetes: long-term complications
Diabetes: who is at risk?