David Allen Russu was my father. He was also a type 1 diabetic, pastor, teacher, lifeguard, realtor, and so much more. He was a downright superhero. He managed to have a successful marriage that never lost it's love but only managed to grow stronger over time. At the same time he raised seven children, taught full time, pastored a church, and was involved in many other activities and family functions. He spent his life giving to others. I don't recall him ever being disliked by anyone.
Mom and Dad at their wedding
Although I would love to make this post about my awesome father’s life and many achievements and such, I swore to myself I would keep it just about his diabetes and how it touched my life. I inherited a lot from my dad…type 1 diabetes was only one of those things.
The Russu family, 1979.
The Russu Family, 1983.
I think about my dad a lot but there are two months of the year where I think about him even more and am nearly overwhelmed with emotion. I think about him a lot during the month of August because he was born on August 20, 1939. And I think about him a lot during February because he died on February 26, 1990.
Dad was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of fifteen (1954). I am not too familiar about the story behind his diagnosis, but I do recall being told he was at a camp and they were checking blood sugars and his was very high. Boom, diagnosed. I don’t think this is an accurate story, but who knows. His sister, Linda, was also a type 1 diabetic. I believe she was diagnosed at some point after him.
Dad was active, he loved sports. As a means of controlling his diabetes he took advantage of his love of the outdoors and staying active. I remember as a child taking walks with him, swimming, hiking, etc… I remember when I was about five years old I was watching dad stretch and get ready to go for a run. I copied his actions and tried to do the same stretches. He stopped and took a moment to teach me how to do them correctly. I begged him to let me go running with him. He told me I wouldn’t be able to keep up and he couldn’t slow down for me because he had to keep his heart rate up. I begged him some more and promised to go straight home if I couldn’t keep up. He laughed and agreed to let me come along. I think I made it a block before he sped up and called behind himself to me to go home. I obeyed, happy to oblige his demand because it was obviously too hard to keep up.
Dad and I on a hiking trip.
My brother, Joel, is also a type 1 diabetic. He was diagnosed at age 6. I remember one day Dad accidentally gave Joel his dose of insulin instead of the dose Joel was supposed to get. Joel got to spend the day eating goodies and being watched closely for low blood sugar. After that incident Dad taught Joel how to administer his own insulin.
Dad ate healthy, checked his blood sugar often, took his shots, exercised, saw his doctor regularly. He did everything right according to the knowledge of diabetes in his time. When he hit his late thirties he began to develop complications of diabetes. I remember one day he had taken me to work with him. He worked as a teacher at Los Angeles Baptist High School (LAB) and sometimes took myself and one of my brothers to work with him when there was no one to watch us. This particular day I was sitting in the classroom drawing and coloring on some paper and Dad was taking roll. He was having trouble reading the list, though. A student asked him if everything was OK and Dad replied by saying he was fine but for some reason his vision was very blurry. If I remember correctly a student offered to, and was given the task of, taking roll. I remember being very worried about Dad, but everything seemed to be fine after that.
No one in the family seems to be able to remember the exact year, but Dad had a heart attack which resulted in quadruple bypass surgery. I’m thinking it was around 1984 considering my memories of it and my age at the time of these fragmented and confusing memories. I am told Dad was marking the football field for a coming game and it was then that he had a heart attack. He was rushed to the hospital and soon after he had a quadruple bypass. My memories of this time are of walking down a carpeted hallway in the hospital and visiting with Dad as he lay in the bed. He was upset and complaining that the doctor wouldn’t let him do his work. He had papers to grade, damn it!
For years to follow I will never forget every time I saw Dad’s chest or inner leg. He had a scar from the top of his chest to almost his navel, and one long scar from his groin to almost his ankle. I now have very similar scars from my heart surgery.
In 1987 I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. At the time of my diagnosis I was filled with terror and uncertainty. But surprisingly I was also kind of happy. I was just like Dad and Joel now. We shared something rare, something not many people share. I felt even closer to them now. But this feeling didn’t last long. Once I realized what being diabetic meant and all the work and danger involved in it, I quickly learned to resent, hate, and rebel.
Dad taught me everything he knew about diabetes and how to live with it. I listened, I learned, but I didn’t obey. I rebelled against my diabetes with a passion. I took all the knowledge dad taught me so well and I worked against it at every opportunity.
In the years following his heart surgery there would be many instances that evoked fear and worry in me over Dad’s health. There was the day he had a severe low. Mom and all the older children were not around. Joel and I realized Dad had not gotten up yet. He never slept in, he had a routine and he always stuck to it. We knew something was wrong but we were too young, frightened, and unprepared to do anything. We waited, hoping Dad would get up or someone would come home. Time passed and Dad went from laying in bed to falling off of it and laying on the floor. I have no idea what Joel did, he may have called someone, but I don’t know. I do remember him trying to get Dad to eat a granola bar, but Dad wouldn’t do it. Finally our sisters came home and once they found out what was going on and for how long, they called 911. Paramedics came and administered glucose. Dad came to and felt embarrassed as hell.
I think it was in 1988 that Dad had a grand mal seizure during the night. I remember Mom uncharacteristically frightened but doing what she,as a nurse, was trained to do. Someone called 911 and paramedics came and took Dad away. He was in the hospital for a week, I think. After that he continued to have erratic blood sugars and strange nightly seizure like episodes. It worried Mom to no end.
In 1989 Dad started seeing a doctor for his kidneys. There was evidence of damage and many tests were being done. He was on a lot of medications for multiple health issues, all complications of diabetes.
February 25, 1990 started out like any other Sunday. We went to church. Dad was acting weird during the service. Everyone noticed it. He wasn’t able to keep his attention on anything, he was mumbling, he couldn’t hold a tune during the worship. I think my brother, Glenn, asked him if he needed to eat something…maybe it was someone else. We went home and he sat on the couch to read his bible, he seemed OK now. Mom talked to him and eventually left for work. Dad fell asleep on the couch. Joel had to wake him up to let him know it was getting time for dinner. Dad got up and checked his blood sugar. He almost fell over but caught himself by grabbing the edge of the counter. I don’t remember what his blood sugar was. He took his shot and then made dinner. Joel and I were exceedingly worried about the way Dad was acting. I think we both hoped eating dinner would bring him back to normal.
After dinner Dad said he needed to call his doctor about a medication. In my eleven year old mind I thought that was good, maybe the doctor would catch on that things weren’t right. Dad was talking on the phone, then he hung up and just as he hung up he tipped over in his chair and fell to the floor. I think I screamed a little, or called out “Dad!”, I’m not sure. At some point he vomited, but mostly he just laid there.
Joel was the smart one here. He ran to the phone and called our brother, Glenn, and then our mom at work. Then he called 911. He told me to go outside and wave down the ambulance. At some point Glenn showed up, he only lived a couple miles away. I waved down the ambulance and showed the paramedics to my dad. They did their work and rushed him away. Joel, Glenn, and I followed them to the hospital. While we waited, some other family members showed up. Mom had a difficult time getting out of work. As a nurse she couldn’t just up and leave without someone to cover her. It took a couple hours for her to get to the hospital.
After a very long agonizing wait, we finally got an update on Dad’s condition. We piled in to a very small office with the doctor. He told us Dad had had a stroke and was now on life support. He spoke a lot of words and terms I didn’t understand but I looked at Mom and new it wasn’t good. She was crying. I think someone asked, “So what does that mean?” And Mom answered instead of the doctor, “It means he’s a vegetable.”.
At some point I was taken in to see my dad. I remember standing at the foot of his bed and seeing so many machines and wires and tubes hooked up to him. He was just laying there, ashen skin, no movement. It didn’t look like him, I didn’t recognize this person. I ran away in tears.
It seems like it was a longer time, but according to the dates it was just one day before we got the call from the hospital. The phone rang, I walked to my parent’s room to see who called. My mom was on the phone in tears but she spoke quietly and calmly, then she hung up and I swear to you I have never heard such heart wrenching sobs in my entire life. Dean, my oldest brother, held her in his arms as Mom cried like I have never heard her cry in my life and hope to never hear again.
Dad’s funeral flowers atop his casket.
It took me a lot of years to deal with the pain of my father’s death. for me it wasn’t just losing the man who gave me life and taught me how to live right and loved and cared for me so much. It was also the trauma of how he died, why he died. He was diabetic and had a lot of health issues because of his diabetes. And even though he took care of himself, diabetes still killed him. He was only fifty years old. So for a long time I continued to rebel but now on top of rebellion I also had totally given up. I thought, what’s the point? I’m going to die either way.
But there was something else I inherited from my dad. I inherited powerful perseverance. I can’t just lie down and let myself go. I am a fighter, I have to try, I have to work at it because…I just have to.
I wish you all could have known my dad. I know this post is all about his health woes, but he was a great man. Despite all of his health problems, he accomplished so much, he did so much good. He was loved and respected by everyone who knew him.
David Allen Russu, my dad.