For the diabetes community, 2021 is a milestone—the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin. Although not a cure, the miracle drug has saved millions of lives, including that of Matthew Clark’s son, Graham, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2018 when he was 12 years old. This year has added significance for Matthew, who is co-founder of the Vancouver-based company Subplot Design Inc., and who designed the Insulin 100 stamp issued by Canada Post to mark this momentous Canadian discovery. Diabetes Canada caught up with him to learn more.
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Before Graham’s diagnosis, “he mysteriously started feeling unwell,” says Matthew. Graham’s symptoms included low energy, nausea, foggy thinking, and a sudden and dramatic weight loss. Matthew’s wife, Denise, took their son to their family pediatrician, who did some tests and then urged them to go to the emergency department at the B.C. Children’s Hospital. There they learned that Graham had developed diabetic ketoacidosis (also known as DKA, a dangerous complication that is the result of high blood sugar levels over time and excess ketones—acids created when fat is broken down to be used for energy). DKA can lead to a coma and even death. “It was a very scary time for all of us, including Graham’s sister, Zoë, who was 10 at the time,” says Matthew.
Graham stayed in the hospital for the weekend while the staff gave him insulin and balanced his blood sugar. The family took a three-day introduction to diabetes course at the hospital and met Graham’s diabetes care team, which included an endocrinologist, diabetes nurse practitioner, and dietitian. “The instruction was excellent, and we learned a lot,” says Matthew.
What was it like when they got home and were on their own? “At first, we all rallied around Graham and helped with calculations and portions, but he soon took over and was very determined to manage his own condition,” says Matthew. Graham became very good at calculating, with help from his mom, how many carbs he was eating and then doing the math to determine the right amount of insulin. But as they learned, it’s not always easy to get it right since the type of carb, and any activity during the day, can throw the math out the window. “Meeting with Graham’s diabetes team regularly and tracking his blood sugar levels is really critical.”
As is often the case, no one else in their extended family lives with type 1 diabetes, although a few have type 2 diabetes. Unlike many people, before the diagnosis Matthew already had “a good working knowledge of diabetes” thanks to his firm’s work with a producer of blood glucose meters in Canada, the U.S., and around the world. “But it was certainly not the knowledge you have when someone you love and care for has type 1 diabetes,” he says, adding,
I know there are many days where Graham is tired of doing all the hard work—what 14-year-old wouldn’t be! But he also is aware that it is up to him to keep his [blood sugar] in a good range and to pay attention to his health.
Despite the challenges of managing diabetes, the teenager has done pretty well, even throughout the pandemic. Matthew says, “Spending more time at home has probably helped Graham’s diabetes management, as eating at home allows for picking food and doing the calculations in a familiar setting.” Not that Graham is shy about his diabetes: “He has never felt the need to hide it from people at school, and his friends are aware and are very supportive.”
But there’s something special about being among your “tribe,” around people who don’t need any explanation and just get it. Graham got first-hand experience of that when he attended the Diabetes Canada D-Camps summer overnight program at Camp Kahkamela in 2019. Spending time with other children and youth who also live with type 1 diabetes and just having fun and being a kid was unbeatable. Says Matthew, “My son loved that experience and really misses it due to the pandemic. We all learned more about Diabetes Canada and the amazing work it does.”
Insulin 100—Canada Post’s commemorative stamp
Subplot Design Inc. has partnered with Canada Post since 2006, when the company worked on their first collectible stamp to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the founding of British Columbia. They have designed stamp sets for pet adoption, Canada’s 150th anniversary, hockey’s 100th anniversary, Lunar New Year, Vancouver’s historic Asahi baseball team, Canada’s contribution to Apollo 11—and now, the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin.
Drawing inspiration from the University of Toronto’s digital archive, which includes thousands of handwritten diagnoses, lab results, and charts, as well as journals from Dr. Frederick Banting and his colleagues, they came up with a variety of designs. The winning one? “A version where we paired a 100-year-old insulin vial with a page from Dr. Banting’s memoirs, where he recounted the sleepless night he had before his ‘eureka’ moment of how to extract and utilize what became insulin,” says Matthew. “The stamp has an obvious historic nod, but the way we photographed the objects loaned to us by the University of Toronto gives it a distinctly modern feel.”
“For someone who already knew a bit about diabetes, to fully experience diabetes and then dive deep into a commemorative stamp about insulin was truly rewarding,” says Matthew. “It felt like a profound way to honour my son and the life-saving insulin that’s part of his everyday life.”
Did you know?
2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin. Today, more Canadians have diabetes than ever before. Diabetes or prediabetes affects one in three Canadians. One in two young adults will develop diabetes in their remaining lifetime. We cannot wait another 100 years to fund vital research that can help End Diabetes. #LetsEndDiabetes Visit 100 Years of Insulin to learn more, including how you can support those living with or at risk for the disease.
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