A bitter-sweet journey for diabetic patient

Diabetes can’t stop you from living a healthy, happy life.

OH, 17! You’ve got diabetes!” the nurse announced loudly as she waved the glucose meter in front of me. “More than 10 on the meter, you know!”

I was stunned. It took a few seconds before I stammered: “What? Wait! I don’t know! I need to know more. I’ve got questions.”

She did not wait for my questions, but hurried off to the next patient. I was in hospital waiting for an unrelated surgical procedure. Now I was doubly traumatised. Her announcement hit me hard. For with that I joined the 2.6 million diabetics in the country. Safety in numbers does not apply in this case. No matter how many people have it, it is still a lonely battle you have to fight every day.

I recalled the horror stories I had heard of diabetic patients with rotting toes, putrefying wounds that would not heal, amputations, blindness, the list goes on.

I asked for the doctor, but he would only be available at the end of the day. I couldn’t talk to the other patients as they, too, have their own problems. I was alone. I stared at the ceiling, my heart pounding furiously. I could feel the tears coming.

Why me? I was in my late forties then, I watched my diet and I was not obese. Walking was my favourite exercise and not being a good driver, I walked a lot. I love vegetables and fruits. My friends say I’m addicted to pesticides. I lead an active life...

Then suddenly I recalled that two months ago, I had felt very tired when attending a buffet dinner and had hardly the energy to get up and take some food. I felt uncomfortable and didn’t move until the end of the dinner.

The next day I was all right, so I didn’t think much of it. I was losing weight and people complimented me on my trim figure. I felt like a fool when I looked back. After all, one of the signs of diabetes is weight loss.

The doctor finally came. With a glum face, I asked him what I was to do. He prescribed what he called a new smart medicine which I have to take only once a day, in the morning before food.

“It’ll control your glucose level for you. It’s a bit pricey though. Or do you want some more conventional medicine? You take more, but they are cheaper. Both medicine are effective.“

“No, I’ll take this. I’ll just have to tighten my budget somehow. What do I have to do besides taking my ‘smart’ medicine. Any special food? Eat less? Any advice? By the way, how did I get it?”

“Genetics. Your grandaunt and aunt had it as you have mentioned. Don’t waste your money on any special diabetic food and eat as usual. Smart medicine.” He tapped a couple of times on his prescription pad for emphasis. He seemed to view it like the common cold, and since no other advice was forthcoming, I asked if there was a device I could purchase to monitor my glucose level.

A glucose monitor was handed to me, but I had no idea how to use it, so the pharmacist demonstrated it to me. 

I read through all the information I could get my hands on about diabetes, diet plans and portion control. I noticed that the plans do not take into account that patients with diabetes are also on other strong medications. A couple slices of bread, fruit or limited portion recommended is not going to last till the next meal. I don’t want to add gastric problems to my growing list of health issues. The diet is also bland and unappetising, especially for those raised on a varied, spicy diet. I am not surprised many diabetics do not stick to it.

I decided to ask some “veteran” diabetics how they cope with their condition and diet. Some told me that they felt weak and depressed. Others were unable to follow the recommended diet because they ate the same meals as their family. A separate diet would incur extra time and costs which they could not afford.

A diabetic lorry driver told me that his hours were long and irregular, and he ate whatever he could find at the foodstalls along the road. A building supervisor was wolfing down a huge portion of fried noodles. When I asked about his carb intake, he said, “I’ve got to fill my stomach. My work requires a lot of energy. Besides, this is all I can afford. I’ve got schoolgoing children, a car and housing loans, and other financial responsibilities. All the food plans and fancy stuff are not for me.” He shrugged his shoulders.

My diabetic bread-vendor showed me his packet of iced Milo tied to the handle of his motorcycle, and said he would take a sip now and then whenever he felt lethargic. “It works,” he said, brightly.

An old security guard said, “Makan lebih sikit lah (eat less)” and showed me his packet of white rice with a small fried fish, chilli paste and a few slices of cucumber.

I asked if it was enough to get him through the day.

Minum air lah,” he said, showing me a big bottle of water by his side. I know for one that drinking too much water could lead to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

I was not much enlightened or dismayed after my little survey. After all, famous diabetics like boxers “Smokin Joe” Frazier and Sugar Ray Robinson didn’t let diabetes stop them from being world champions.

I was more than determined to fight this great adversary – diabetes. I prepared my own sugar-level food chart and designed my own diet plan. I started with eating different types of food and then tested my glucose level. I went through a lot of glucose test strips and they aren’t cheap.

After a few months, I stopped having mood swings and sudden sugar highs and lows. I was back to my happy self again. The smart medicine was working fine, as the good doctor had predicted. My glucose level is well under control.

My diet is now largely based on wholemeal cereals, vegetables and fruits. I do take meat occasionally, but I prefer healthy vegetarian food. It’s delicious. Some fruits contain a high amount of sugar, so I will eat them when they are barely ripe and have only a small portion of those that are naturally sweet.

I do not add much salt in my food. To make food appetising, I use lots of spices. They add “oomph” to a meal. I made myself a familiar face in Little India when I discovered the world of spices.

Quick-fix meals

With the help of friends who are into cooking healthy food and are good chefs, I have my own menu of quick-fix meals for busy days, munchies for those peckish in-between-meals moments, and a few elaborate diabetic-friendly dishes for special occasions to share with non-diabetic friends.

There are days when I don’t really feel like cooking but have to eat, so I have plans for that, too. Eating healthy, doing some simple exercises like walking around in the supermarkets or shopping malls, joining a support group if they are near your place, or having a hobby for relaxation and meeting people help immensely in improving our well-being. A positive outlook of life will do wonders, too.

>> Beyond Barriers is a platform for sharing and raising awareness on disability issues. We welcome contributions from readers who have a disability or any special needs, caregivers, advocates of disability groups, or anyone living with any chronic medical condition. E-mail your stories to star2@thestar.com.my. Contributions which are published will be paid, so please include your full name, IC number, address and contact number. 

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