Peter Lum cannot leave home without three things – his glucose testing kit, his insulin pump and a packet of sweets.
As a type 1 diabetes sufferer, these tools are essential for his daily survival.
The 50-year-old has been a diabetic for 33 years and is proof that one can lead a healthy life, although his “sugary” journey has been far from smooth.
After his parents divorced, Lum turned to food and reading for comfort. He was eight then.
Bit by bit, the healthy kid started piling on the pounds. He got a little chubby, and eventually “blossomed” further, though he wasn’t obese.
“I had no proper guidance or education when it came to food and was never refused a second helping whenever I asked,” recalls Lum, a public relations consultant. “It wasn’t until I was around 17 and studying in Toronto, Canada, that I realised no one was looking at me because I was fat and sported an ugly pot belly. That’s when I decided to go on a diet.”
Again, without any guidance, he cut out all food and stuck to eating green apples and drinking milk – nothing else, not even water. He thought he was getting healthy.
In a few months, his weight dropped to 55kg and on his 1.8m frame – Lum was clearly gaunt.
It was the era of Boy George and punk dressing, and with his new body, Lum dressed for art; he finally attracted attention and was thrilled.
“As much as possible, I’d try not to eat. I think my system went into shock because I was constantly feeling tired, had slurred speech, got easily confused and suffered leg cramps at night, but I attributed this to the cold weather.
“I also got ridiculously hungry and thirsty, and had a constant urge to urinate. But when I went to the toilet, the urine would just trickle out. My sister knew something was wrong and forced me to see the doctor,” he shares.
At the hospital, Lum started going in and out of consciousness, and blood tests revealed his sugar level was way above the normal range. He was diagnosed as having type 1 diabetes and had entered a state of diabetic keto- acidosis, a serious complication of diabetes that occurs when your body produces high levels of blood acids called ketones.
The condition develops when your body cannot produce enough of a hormone called insulin, which is needed to help sugar (glucose) enter the cells.
Lum says, “The doctor told my sister if I wasn’t treated immediately, I would die within a week because my heart was strained and I was having shortness of breath. I was totally dehydrated and had no clue what was going on. So I was admitted.”
The causes of type 1 diabetes, which is usually diagnosed in children and young adults, are unknown, although several risk factors have been identified, including a genetic link. However, no one in Lum’s family had the disease, so it came as a surprise when his parents were informed.
For a week, Lum had to be fed intravenously, and when he was slightly better, a nurse taught him how to use the syringe and vials. He wasn’t allowed any sugary drinks, sweets or ice cream.
“This was shocking! I was told I could only have 100g of rice daily. I had to learn to stick the needle in my thighs, tummy or buttocks twice a day. It was painful. I also had to test my glucose levels twice daily with a prick on the finger.”
Once discharged, Lum had to learn to manage this irreversible disease.
A few months later, he returned to Malaysia, at a time when diabetes awareness was not so high. People would shoot him dirty stares and start whispering when he injected himself with insulin.
“My overprotective father refused to let me return to Canada, so I never went back, although I continued the dosage that the Canadian doctor prescribed. A few years passed and I started feeling tired again. When I finally went to see the doctor, I realised I needed a higher dosage,” he says.
From two injections, he was now on five injections daily! This went on for more than 20 years. Life was quite miserable, but Lum plodded on.
Often, because of the nature of his job, Lum would not be able to take his shots and have his meals on time, causing his blood sugar levels to fall too low (hypoglycaemia). When this happens, he would start to shake, sweat and get dizzy. Immediately, he’d pop a candy in his mouth.
He says, “I was gaining weight and could not even rest my hands on my thighs because they were so tender, sore and tight from the jabs. I was spending more than RM1,000 monthly on insulin, and that was at the government hospital.”
Last year, he sought treatment from a different specialist, who told him he was overdosing himself. Lum was puzzled because two doctors from the same hospital gave him two different prescriptions.
“This doctor reduced my dosage and suggested I use an insulin pump if I could afford it. I got my finances together and opted for it.”
Insulin pumps deliver rapid- or short-acting insulin 24 hours a day through a catheter placed under the skin.
For Lum, the pump has given him more control of his life, though he still has to test his sugar levels five times a day. His weight has stabilised and he no longer has food cravings. His medical expenses have also reduced by half.
He says, “I indulge once in a while... I’m only human. I can eat a piece of cake everyday without feeling guilty. I’ve learnt to adjust my diet and make better choices now. There is really no stigma attached to this disease. With acceptance and care, you can turn your life around. My only weakness is that I don’t exercise because I’m lazy!
“Just because you’ve been diagnosed as a diabetic doesn’t mean you have to start looking for burial plots and coffins! Be mindful of what you’re doing to your body or you’ll end up paying the price for it.”