Community News
July 17, 2017 By Gillian Campbell
I am being kept alive by a machine

It’s a startling statement to make and an uncomfortable truth: I am literally being kept alive by a machine.  It happened more than 10 years ago. I had just started grade nine when I began to get sick over a period of several months. I started to drink more water — just a bottle during the afternoon, but soon I was sticking my face under the faucet to wet my mouth at all hours of the day and night. Strange things were starting to happen — in my nose, knots in my hair, pain in my legs. I would come home from school around four and sleep until my mom called me for supper. Eventually, my pants were starting to fall below my waist.

I was wearing sweats that morning in May — the day my life changed. My high school sweatshirt drooped over my skinny body as I held out my finger for my first glucose test. The doctor squeezed my finger and let the strip absorb the blood. I had yet to eat, but my blood sugar that morning was 14. This high number diagnosed itself: diabetes.

Soon after, I received a piece of news that I had been dreading: I was no longer permitted on the three-week canoe trip that I had been planning for months. Learning that this disease was going to inhibit me from exploring the Quebec wilderness hurt even more than all the injections and finger pricks that I was now giving myself multiple times on a daily basis.

I know now that although my life was indeed different, it didn’t change as much as I expected. I was still able to go to camp that summer, and I was still able to travel to Europe with my family. I just had to bring enough insulin and syringes to manage my blood sugar for the two weeks that I was away.

I was in my final year of high school and getting ready to go off to university in the fall when I began to consider other ways of receiving insulin. The insulin pump is a pager-sized device that is constantly delivering the hormone into the bloodstream, and allows for much more flexibility than injections. My first attempt did not go well. I was terrified of the needle jabbing into my side to attach the infusion set, and my fingers fumbled as I tried to change the insulin cartridge. I could not fathom having to count carbohydrates every time I wanted to eat. It felt like being diagnosed all over again.

A few months later, I attempted to transition again...successfully. The insulin pump was attached to me throughout four years at Queen’s University, in the pool with me during lifeguard trainings, and it was there as I was having adventures of my own in Europe. I was still wearing it when I landed in China, with a hockey bag full of medication and supplies. I lasted 14 months living away from home and from my doctors. I was a type 1 diabetic living on the other side of the world, determined to make it work. When I finally saw my doctors again after my return: I was perfectly healthy. I made it work.

It wasn’t easy being a diabetic traveller and expat. I constantly had to consider how many carbs I was eating, how much I was burning off every day by walking, and how much insulin I was taking to match what I was eating. I remember waking up in the middle of the night in a hostel in northern France with a blood glucose level of 2.2. In my state of confusion, I forgot that I had sugar in my bag, so it ended up being dry cornflakes stolen from the breakfast room that saved me. A month later, I ran out of insulin cartridges in London, less than a week before I was to fly home. For two days I was running in and out of Boots pharmacies to find the insulin that I needed. In China last year, my blood sugar dropped dramatically as I was climbing down from our hike along the Great Wall. The high-carb rice and sugar diet that is Chinese food certainly didn’t help either. I was often trying to re-adjust my rates and estimating my carbohydrate intake at meals.

Had I been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes a century ago, I would have been dead before my 15th birthday. The machine — the insulin pump — is a marvel of modern medical technology that not only keeps me alive, but allows me to live however I choose. So maybe being kept alive by a machine isn’t such a bad thing after all. It’s my life, and I don’t let diabetes control how I live. I control the insulin pump; I control my diabetes.

Gillian Campbell’s love of travel has also taken her to Hong Kong and New Zealand.

Do you any tips about travelling with diabetes?  Tell us now.

Do you have a personal story of how your diabetes diagnosis has affected you or someone you know? Fill in our easy personal story submission form, and you and your story could appear in myDC community content. 

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