I’ve intended all along to post excerpts from the more than 100 interviews I’ve conducted with fellow diabetics, their loved ones and specialists. Somehow I didn’t get ’round to it — until now. Since it’s the new year, it seems apt to begin with a woman whose story contains so much sorrow, and yet so much joy, and of course a lesson for us all. Her story reminds me, over and over, that it’s not what happens to us that determines our life, but how we respond to what happens. Cliché as it is, are you looking at your glass as half empty or half full?
The Early Years
Kathryn is 65, she got diabetes at 9 and then TB in her native England at 12 and went into a sanitarium for 18 months. During her sanitarium stay her mother passed away. This is certainly enough to mark any child’s life not to mention she learned of her mother’s passing from a minister at the sanitarium whom she’d never met. After her mother’s death, Kathryn remained at the sanitarium another nine months. Twice she slipped into a diabetic coma for days, in part because the doctors didn’t use IVs to revive diabetics from comas. Instead, they force fed them chocolate waiting for their sugar to rise. The day we talk she laughs as she tells me about waking up with chocolate wrappers all around her!
Having missed so much schooling, when Kathryn got out of the sanitarium she went straight to work, and then at 19 left Britain to live with an Aunt in Canada. Not long after, Kathryn met and married her husband who was a loving partner and extremely supportive of her diabetes. After enduring a heart attack and cataract surgery, he urged her to get a meter, which she initially fought, feeling she was poking herself enough with her daily injections. But when she could come up with no good excuses not to have one, she gave in. Today Kathryn lives alone, having lost her partner, but she has learned a lot in the past decade about caring for herself: she tests her blood sugar 4-5 times a day, has learned how to eat properly, counts carbs and is a svelte 126 pounds. But, for so many diabetics who got their illness long before today’s management tools and strategies, Kathryn is also a double amputee. A double amputee who dances, drives and laughs a lot.
The first leg she told me giggling was taken off five years ago. “The doorbell rang nine o’clock at night while I was on the sofa lying down,” said Kathryn. “I got up and opened the door, it was a pizza delivery, of course it wasn’t for me and crossing to the door I stepped on a staple.” Because of Kathryn’s neuropathy she didn’t feel anything, a wound developed that turned into gangrene, incredible pain and the leg came off.
If you think I’ve been setting you up to cry over Kathryn and her unhappy life, you’re wrong. She’s about the most cheerful person I’ve ever spoken with. “The surgery,” she continued, “was scheduled for my sixtieth birthday. I went in and had my leg off and the first thing I said when I came ‘round was, I’ve got no more pain. I healed in five weeks, which they all found amazing and I was fitted for a prosthetic below the knee. I call it ‘the full Monty.’ We’ve all had quite a few laughs over this. Six months later,” Kathryn said, “I lost my other leg. I tripped over my wheelchair while trying to stand up and my foot got caught under the wheel and damaged my toe. The gangrene set in fast and the leg came off fast. I was in hospital within three days and off it came. So now they all know me down there at the hospital. and now I’ve got two prosthetics, Monty and Mathew.” Again, she tells me with a wink.
“I drive, I dance, life is what you make it. This year I’m going to England for two and a half months. I’m going on a Mediterranean cruise, I’m going down the Nile and to see the pyramids and to Turkey and Greece. I’m quite excited about the whole thing,” Kathryn informed me.
“To me, losing my legs was a blessing. The pain they gave me stopped, and I could do things. Imagine, I don’t have to wear diabetic shoes anymore! I don’t have to have pedicures. I don’t need to shave my legs! There are so many positives!” But when she said this, I truly had to laugh out loud. “Recently my friends and I went to a dinner theatre and I was sitting at the table and my leg was killing me and I said I have to take my leg off so I did, under the table. It was dark, no one could see, so I took it off. At the end of the play I put my leg back on and got up and I realized I’d caught the tablecloth in my leg and it was skidding off the table coming toward me as I walked away. What a hoot!
“Now I talk to other people at the hospital who are going to have their legs off and I really enjoy doing that. I am so happy to help. Every year I talk to the graduating class of the University of Alberta. Mostly people wonder how I manage it all, and my attitude. They think it’s unreal that I dance and drive. But I just can’t sit home and feel sorry for myself. I was at the theatre last night and I’m going to the symphony on Saturday. I like to get out and meet people. I also have a habit, I’m afraid. I go around singing a lot. When I’m at the hospital people find me coming round the corner legs off singing away.
“My attitude comes up a lot,” Kathryn said, as I too was amazed listening to her. “I think my positive spirit comes partly from my mum because she went through an awful lot, yet I’d never seen her cry. I’ve come through a lot in my life, I really have with the TB, losing my mum, all sorts of things and yet I’ve always been positive. I had a career working with children which I loved. I couldn’t have children which was a bit of a disappointment, but I have two adopted children and now I’ve got wonderful grandchildren. I have a fantastic circle of friends, they’re all very, very good to me. They all help me out.
“I don’t say I don’t have down days, I do. I don’t think you’d be normal if you didn’t but basically I’m an upbeat person. I’m quite happy with life and I’m doing well. I see the future as bright. I’m not too sure what else can happen but I’m going to enjoy the time while I’ve got it.”
Well, I don’t know if attitude and optimism are nature or nurture or a bit of both, but I do know how we interpret what happens in our lives and how we judge where we are in our lives, determines the quality of our lives and the satisfaction and happiness we feel. Even though Kathryn has no legs it certainly hasn’t slowed her down and that’s due to a decision she made along the way – life will not stop me as long as I can still get up.
“Just do what you want to do,” Kathryn ended our talk with. “And don’t let diabetes stop you. Don’t let it take control of you or rule or ruin your life. You’ve still got things to do with your life.” Then she told me something that surprised me, “You know I’ve never really talked to anyone about all this but you. I don’t talk about this a lot.” But it didn’t shock me when she followed up with, “You know, all the time I was in the hospital they wanted me to go to a support group but I wouldn’t. I don’t want to feel sorry for myself or hear myself say, “When I had my surgery…blah, blah, blah.”
The day I interviewed Kathryn I was feeling physically awful. I’d had a bad cold and sore throat for two weeks and it wasn’t improving. My sinuses were hurting, my ears were hurting, every night I had difficulty falling asleep because the very mild neuropathy I have in one calf was acting up and my tinnitus was roaring. Need I say after listening to Kathryn that day I was made aware, once again, just how lucky I am. So for the new year let’s all try to ‘count our blessings’ more often. I’m sure Kathryn’s tying on her dance shoes just about now.