My Diabetes, The Beginning

My diabetes, in the beginning…

In 1945 I started school in the first grade, the next day after Labor Day. I did not feel like going, but my parents wanted me to go even though I was only five years old. I was six years old during the second week of my school year. I felt sick in my classroom, and I was not paying much attention to the teacher. I just wanted to go home, and stay there. The steps on the school bus were steep, and it was hard to climb them because I was feeling weak.

Several months previously, I had chickenpox. Then I had mumps. While I was recovering, I stopped wanting to eat, and I started losing weight. Mother and Daddy took me to our family doctor, but he did not know what was wrong with me. He had us get a tall bottle of brown stuff, and I was supposed to have some of it a few times each day. It was supposed to give me an appetite, and make me want to eat, but it did not help. Not at all. We saw two other doctors, and they did not know what was wrong, either. My Mother made an appointment with a fourth doctor. We hoped so much that he could help me.

My sixth birthday was on September 10. I did not want to eat any cake, or anything else. I was feeling very sick, and I didn’t have an appetite. Mother kept giving me things to eat, but I refused to eat them. I was very weak, and I was having a hard time walking. I had lost a lot of weight. Drinking so much water, but I was still thirsty. Peeing so much!!

A few days after my birthday, we went to see the fourth doctor, Dr. Williams. His office was upstairs in an old building in Salem, Va. It was a very long flight of stairs. I was so weak that it was difficult to climb the stairs. Daddy carried Shirley, my little sister, up the steps. She was two years old. Mother walked beside me, and tried to help me up the steps. I had to stop and rest some, my heart was beating so fast. We reached the top of the stairs, and walked down a long hall. The doctor was in his office, and Mother and I sat down in chairs. It felt so good to sit down. Daddy stood in the doorway behind us, still holding Shirley.

We had my blood tested several days before seeing the doctor, and he had the results. He gave us some bad news. He said I had diabetes. I looked at Mother, and she was very pale, and I could tell she was very scared about what the doctor was saying. What is diabetes? Is it serious? I was sacred too!! The doctor said a lot more, but I don’t remember any of that. Mother’s face scared me, and I just wanted to go home. I do remember the doctor saying I had to go to the hospital. It was late in the day then, and we waited until the next morning to go to the hospital. Another doctor was supposed to meet us there. We hoped he would help make me feel better.

I had been to a hospital twice before. The first time was to have a hernia removed from my right side. I was four years old then. Later that year I had my tonsils removed. I had a terrible sore throat for a long time. I was so glad when my throat was better, and I could eat again. When I went to the hospital for diabetes, I knew I would not have surgery. I was so glad about that! I was also glad that I would not be going to school for awhile. Maybe I should not have started school that year.

I was taken to a room in the hospital, and put in a bed in one of the rooms. Dr. Davis came to the room and talked to us about diabetes. I was given something called insulin, and the doctor said it would make me feel much better. I liked hearing that, but the very long needles they used hurt me so much! I had lost so much weight, and my arms were so skinny. The shots were given in those arms. After a few days in the hospital, I had an appetite again. I ate some food in my hospital room, and before I went home, I was gaining some weight. I felt stronger, and walking was much easier. Dr. Davis told us that I could eat anything I wanted, and as much as I wanted, if it did not contain sugar. There were no other restrictions. I loved Dr. Davis!!!

The first few days at home were difficult for me, and my parents. When I got up each morning I had to pee in a cup. Daddy had a big test tube containing some blue liquid called Benedict’s solution. He put a few drops of my urine in the test tube, and then put it in a tin can on the stove. There was some water in the tin can, and we waited until the water boiled for awhile. When the test tube was removed, we could see the color of the solution. If it was still blue, I did not have any urine sugar. If it was green I did have sugar in my urine. The other colors that showed even more sugar were yellow, orange, and red. The red color meant that I had very high sugar level. I hated red, and felt much better when I had blue or green.

I used insulin that was taken from the bodies of pigs and cows. The amount of urine sugar determined the amount of insulin I needed each day. Daddy put the insulin into a big glass syringe, and then he twisted a needle onto the tip of the syringe. The needle was about three quarters of an inch in length. Dr. Davis wanted Daddy to inject the insulin into the muscle on my very skinny arms and legs. The insulin was not fast acting, and injecting it into muscle made it work faster. The injections really hurt a lot!! The needles were very thick, and long. The insulin was a 24 hour insulin, and I did not have another injection until the next morning. A different needle was used each day.

The syringe and needles were placed in a jar of alcohol, until the next morning. After a week had passed, the syringe and needles were placed in a pan on the stove, and boiled, to make them sterile. We had a well on our property that supplied our water, and there was some lime in the water. The lime left a white coating on the syringe and needles. Sometimes the lime deposit clogged the needles, and Daddy had to take a very fine wire and push it through the needle to unclog it, before loading the syringe with insulin. The needles were wide enough for the wire to be pushed through. There were also times that a deposit appeared on the outside of the needle, near the tip. Daddy had to remove the deposit by using a whetting stone. If we did not notice a deposit on the needle, and it was pushed into my skin, it made a popping sound, and that hurt so much!

After a few days at home, I returned to school. I was feeling much better, and I was strong enough to easily climb onto the bus. I could pay attention to the teacher, without any problem. I had missed several days of school, and catching up was not easy. Mother went to the school and had a discussion with the teacher. The teacher had never heard of diabetes. Mother told her that I should not play with the other kids in the gym, or on the playground. The activity could cause my sugar to drop too low, and I could have an insulin reaction. Mother tutored me at home. The teacher told her what lessons had been covered while I was in the hospital. Mother was a very good tutor!

That is the way it was, for many years. We did not know about diabetes complications. Test my urine before breakfast, take my morning insulin, avoid sugar and don’t play too hard. That seemed simple enough. No worries. Everything was good. I wonder how things would have been if we knew about the complications, and the true nature of diabetes.



Richard, I always enjoy reading your accounts of the early days. I was diagnosed in 1977, so I missed the test tubes and reusable syringes and needles. I did start on one shot a day, however, and checking sugar in the urine was the only way to gauge blood sugar. Thanks for sharing.


Thanks for sharing Richard. I am quite surprised that they waited until following day to admit to hospital. I was diagnosed 1965, and mom took me to Dr for similar symptoms. We were sent directly to the hospital, and had fluids and insulin injection within the hour. I think I stayed for 10 days, and sent home with Lente insulin for once per day injections. Continued that for almost 20 years before starting NPH, REG multiple injections.

Syringes had improved a bit, but still used the test tubes to check sugars.

I’m glad that currently there are advances so much quicker and now is different than just 5 years ago.


I get so much from your history lessons. And am always so inspired when reading your stories. It amazes me how well you did with such ineffective tools we had back then.
I also did the test tube/eye dropper chemistry set four times a day. And I also did one shot of Lente a day but thank goodness it was with the new disposable syringes!
And unlike you, we were told no I should say beat up with the complications from the very beginning. And I agree it probably wasn’t the best way for us to approach it. It scared the crap out of me and my parents. I really believed I would never make it to 30!
But that fear has been a big factor in my approach to diabetes. Probably not the best but it did work for me.
I don’t ever want to feel the way I felt when I was diagnosed. (Did go into a coma) I will take a low over a high any day!
I was not told I could eat anything. I was handed that darn exchange list and thought my life was over. Where was all that wonderful Italian food my Mom made?
I was never held back from doing anything. Did gym class, did sports teams, went to camp. I was never told I couldn’t do anything. But my life was sure different behind closed doors.
Please keep sharing your life lessons! You really are a true inspiration to me!


Sally7, thanks so much for your reply. I am a member of the Joslin medalists group on Facebook. Many of the members in that group have had no serious diabetes related complications for 50+ years. Others have had serious complications, but they have managed to hold on and are doing reasonably well.
I am amazed at how differently our childhoods were. You were not held back, and you did almost anything you wanted, within reason. Is that correct? I was watched so closely, and there were so many restrictions. I did not cheat, and followed my doctor’s and my parents’ advice so closely. I wonder if that helped make a difference in our outcomes. I hope you are enjoying your life, and that you will continue to do so for many more years.

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Richard, is that U20 Insulin in the picture? I think my aunt used U20 1950 - 1953. Sadly she passed at age 12 in 1953. I wish I had her or for that matter one of my moms, original syringe kits and sharpening stones. Sadly, I do not. My mom happily tossed them when she got her disposable syringes. I image most did.

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I tossed my old equipment too. The pictures I show are ones that I have found online. They are much like what I used in the 1940’s. I have Facebook friends who have been T1 even longer than me. Some of them have posted pics of their old equipment. I do not know if the insulin shown is U20, but the vial looks very much like the vials I used back then.

Lilly has a beautiful museum at the main plant in Indianapolis and they have some of the first vials off the line. It is a powerful statement about where we were and where are today. They also own a collection of vials from one of fellow type 1’s who started using insulin the early 40’s. He collected and kept every vial of insulin he ever used. Those vials were donated to that museum. I understand the display will be remarkable when presented later this year.

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WOW! That is amazing. I would love to visit that museum, and the Banting House in Ontario. I wish they were not so far apart.

Richard, you brought back some good (because you felt better) and painful memories for me. I was diagnosed in 1966 when I was 12 years old. I, too, was feeling awful for a couple of months, but as a 12-year-old girl, I was happy that I seemed to be “magically” losing weight. I lost 20 pounds in two weeks, and my thirst, too, was insatiable. I cried when Mom told me that we were going to the doctor because I somehow knew that my life would never be the same after I saw him. Of course, I was right.

The doctor did a blood test and told us that my blood sugar was far over 600. He wondered why I was still conscious and walking around. Like you, I was scared to death at the look that came over my mother’s face. She actually started to cry, and that is something that I had never seen her do before. However, Dr. Appel was wonderful. He told us that I would probably live to be 99 because unlike other children, I would now have to eat healthy food, avoid sugar, and get good exercise. He said that taking better care of myself than most people would be beneficial to me. God bless him!

But oh, those needles! I was actually given two injections that first day in the hospital, and the next day the nurses came in to show both my mother and me how to fill a syringe with water that we practiced injecting into an orange. The orange peel, apparently, gave the same type of resistance to the needle as the human skin. Since I was 12, I was judged old enough to be able to fill a syringe accurately and to inject my own insulin. My Mom still did most of the injections at the beginning since the arms were still the sites of choice, but eventually I started using my upper thighs, too.

Returning to school – I was in 5th grade – was a strange experience. Apparently the teacher had explained to the rest of my class that I had diabetes, and I have no idea what other warnings or myths he might have told them about the disease. As you stated, Richard, even in 1966 not much was known. I learned that first week back at school who my true friends were. Some classmates avoided me to the point of staying far away from me in class and on the playground like I had a terrible, contagious disease. I heard students whispering behind my back and watching me closely as if I were either going to collapse and die in front of them or exhibit some seizure-like behavior. Of course, I did neither. My true friends, however, stayed loyal. They hugged me, ate lunch with me, and played with me in a normal way. By best friend, Lois, even was brave enough to invite me to a sleep-over later on, and her parents were wonderful about making sure that I took my insulin the following morning. Lois has remained my friend to this day.

The routine you went through with the needles having to be boiled every few days, and of those needles being as large (it seemed) as tree trunks was the same process I experienced. After a few weeks, the point of the needle would curl under, so the injections became more painful as time went on. I know that the same thing with the point curling under on needles happens even today with the lancets we all use to take blood tests, which is why I change that lancet at least once or twice a day. I cringe when people use the same lancet for weeks on end. Not only is that not sanitary, but the tests become more painful and damage the skin more as the lancet point curls under. Lancets are not THAT expensive, so changing them daily is a must for me.

Although my family was not rich by any means, when disposable needles became available, they were willing to make the switch to those for my safety and comfort. My mother was delighted that she did not have to boil needles any more, and the advent of the totally disposable syringe was another milestone.

When I first was diagnosed in 1966, I, too, was told simply to avoid sugar. My Dad was a big dessert eater (we always had cake, pie, and cookies available to end a meal), so he was devastated that the family would have to give up desserts. However, I was old enough to understand what an impact that would have on my Dad, so I told my family that because I had to give up sweets did not mean that they had to follow suit. I could see the relief in my Dad’s face, and that early experience helped me learn that the world would not end if I avoided foods that would just make me sick.

That 1966 nutritional advice, as we know today, was far from true. Being a good Wisconsin girl, I remember eating lots of crackers and cheese, and I never could figure out why crackers made my blood sugar rise since they contained very little sugar. Naturally, we know today that the carbohydrates, not the sugar, was the cause. How much we have learned since that time about diet, exercise, and nutrition!

In my early 20’s, I switched from one to two injections a day. That later changed to three, and then four injections as our knowledge of diabetes and its effects on the body became better understood. With that control, though, came better health. I was able to deliver two healthy baby girls, and I was able to hold down a good career for 30+ years.

I always avoided pumps because I could not wrap my mind around being tethered to a machine by a tube, so learning about the advantages of the OmniPod pump was the next life-changing moment in my diabetic life. I have been using the OmniPod for over a decade, and we all know what a wonderful advantage a pump of any kind can be for a diabetic. I still am not on a CGM due to financial considerations. Right now I am closely watching what will or will not be covered under Medicare since that insurance is only a couple of years away for me. I will continue to use the OmniPod after Medicare, even if it is not covered, and just save for the $6,000 a year it will cost me to do so.

When I look at how treatment, attitudes, and knowledge of diabetes has changed in the last 50+ years, I have hope that the next few years will continue to bring about new revelations. And perhaps in the next few decades, we actually will be able to take steps to prevent the children being born today from ever having to worry about living the life of a diabetic. Keep the faith, folks. Knowledge is power, so I have faith that the future is bright.


Hi @SherryAnn, thanks so much for your reply, I enjoyed reading your diabetes story. I’m glad you are using an Omnipod pump. I’m not having very good luck with the Dexcom CGM, even though insurance is covering 80% of the cost, so doing without it would not be a bad thing. Some users do have much better luck with it though. I think that Omnipod and Dexcom are integrated, so that would be a plus, if you decide to give it a chance. I admire your changing your lancet every day, that is a good idea. I change mine once per week, but now I am thinking about changing more frequently. Medicare is covering the Dexcom G5. That is the one I am using. I have neuropathy, but do not need any medication for it. I do not have any other diabetes related complications after 72 years of type 1. I am very fortunate!! It is easy to see that you have good diabetes management, like me. We are very lucky to have done so well over so many years with this somewhat mysterious disease.
Good luck to you in the many years ahead!! :grinning:

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