Debbie Sissmore was humbled and delighted to win the Canadian Diabetes Association’s 2014 Kurt Kroesen National Inspiration Award, which recognizes someone “who has overcome great odds to manage their diabetes and continue to live a fulfilling, active, and inspiring life.” The 58-year-old, who lives in Peterborough, Ont., says, “It was very meaningful to me. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying to help others with diabetes. If this enables me to be a role model for them, that’s a good thing.”
Triumph over adversity
Even though Debbie lost her sight at the age of 30 due to diabetes-related complications (a condition known as diabetic retinopathy), she has not let anything stop her from leading a productive life. “I’ve been through it all,” she says.
I take an active role in my own care. I do my part. I work out a lot, watch very carefully what I eat, and maintain a positive attitude.
Debbie, who has a degree in physical education, exercises five days a week at the home gym and outdoor pool she and her husband, Malcolm, share. She does high-intensity interval training (short, intense workouts), works with weights and, in summer, swims laps. Until she developed a hip injury, she was a long-distance runner, and ran in the New York Marathon and other events with the aid of a guide runner, who held one end of a towel while she held the other, and alerted her to uneven footing, curbs and obstacles. (To learn more about research to prevent or restore vision in people with diabetic retinopathy, read Working to Slow Down Eye Damage.)
A long-time volunteer with Diabetes Canada (formerly known as the Canadian Diabetes Association), she also ran in three annual fundraising events in Peterborough, including the now national fundraiser called Lace Up to End Diabetes. As honorary chair of these events, she gave a motivational talk before each race. (Learn more about exercising when you have diabetes-related complications in Exercising with Complications, Part 1 and Part 2.)
The impact of research
Much of Debbie’s public speaking has focused on the importance of diabetes research, which became her passion because of the impact it had on her own life. In 2003, she became only the 60th person in Canada to undergo an islet cell transplant. Beta cells in islets, which normally produce insulin, are implanted in the patient’s liver from a donor, so the person with diabetes can again produce insulin. (To learn more about islet cell research, read Motivated to Make a Difference, “Dr. Peter Senior: Research that Will Improve Lives”.)
As a result of the procedure, which Debbie underwent twice within six weeks at the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton, she requires less insulin. Diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 4, Debbie has brittle diabetes, which made it really difficult to manage her blood sugar. “The most exciting part of the procedure,” she says, “was that for the first time in my entire life living with type 1 diabetes, my blood glucose levels were, and continue to be, in a stable, well-controlled range.”
A history of service
As a volunteer, Debbie done everything from supporting events to handling administrative duties. As a public speaker, she has discussed advances in diabetes management at information and research events, as well as with students with type 1 diabetes at Ryerson University in Toronto, and members of a local diabetes support group. She also presented to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health about the need for continued funding for type 1 diabetes research, and served on the editorial advisory board of Diabetes Dialogue, which involved reading all the articles in the magazine every issue and providing feedback. She joined in 2012 at the urging of her endocrinologist, Dr. Diane Donat, who was also editor-in-chief. “I felt as though l was giving a voice to the reader,” says Debbie, “particularly the person living with type 1 diabetes.”
Debbie also volunteers as the patient partner co-lead for Diabetes Action Canada's (DAC) retinopathy screening program and is on the main steering council. She recently received the Joslin Diabetes Center Medal, which recognizes and studies people who have been living with diabetes for at least 50 years. She says,
When I was diagnosed, we didn’t have the advanced care and treatment methods that are available today. Research has come so far, and offers so much promise for the future, such as stem cells being used to create islets and the development of an artificial pancreas. But we have a long way to go. Great research is going on, but we need funding.
2 tips for managing your blood sugar levels
It is important to check your blood glucose (sugar) levels regularly. This helps determine whether you have high (hyperglycemia) or low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) at a given time, shows how your lifestyle and medication can affect you, and helps you and your diabetes healthcare team make changes that will improve your blood sugar levels.
Discuss with your healthcare team when and how often you should check your levels. Keeping your blood sugar as close to target range as possible can help to delay or even prevent diabetes complications. Target ranges for blood sugar vary with a person’s age, medical condition, and other risk factors. For more information, visit Managing Your Blood Sugar.
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 End Diabetes. Visit 100 Years of Insulin to learn more, including how you can support those living with or at risk for the disease.
This article originally appeared in Diabetes Dialogue, Spring 2015.
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