Millions of Americans have diabetes. Only a small fraction of us have Type 1, though. That’s the one that is also known as juvenile diabetes. I was diagnosed with Type 1 at age seven. Judge Sotomayor was diagnosed with Type 1 when she was eight.
The other form of the disease, Type 2 diabetes, is way more common than Type 1. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 95 percent of the people in America who have diabetes have Type 2. Type 2 is usually diagnosed in people over 50, often linked to their poor eating habits and weight gain. Type 1, which comprises only 5 percent to 10 percent of diabetes cases, has nothing to do with the person’s behavior. In Type 1, the immune system destroys the cells in the pancreas that make insulin. This breakdown usually happens in childhood. Researchers have not yet been able to figure out why.
Insulin carries carbohydrates–from bread, pasta, fruit, beans, milk, so many other foods–through the bloodstream to other parts of the body. Sometimes when people gain too much weight, their insulin can’t keep up. Doctors often prescribe exercise to people with Type 2 — a number of people I know have been “cured” of Type 2 by exercising and losing weight.
Type 1 is a whole different story. Judge Sotomayor and I could run, jump, swim, skip rope, lift weights and do cartwheels from sun-up to sundown (okay, truth is, I could never do a cartwheel, even when I was a kid. But you get the picture) and we could shrink down to a size 3 dress, but we’d still need to inject insulin. That’s because, no matter how much we weigh, those of us with Type 1 produce no insulin. None. Nada.
And so, Sonia and I — along with the other 3 million people in the United States who have juvenile diabetes — take insulin every time we eat. We test our blood several times a day to make sure glucose levels are within range. We balance meals, snacks, exercise and medication to prevent diabetes complications, which can include kidney failure, amputations, and…blindness.
Fast-acting insulins, insulin pumps and home blood monitors were not available when Judge Sotomayor and I were little girls. We took shots, avoided sugar, and tested our urine at home from time to time to get a guess at what our sugar levels were. We were advised not to have children, warned of the likelihood of complications and told we probably wouldn’t live very long.
No surprise that throughout my childhood I saw my juvenile diabetes as a weakness. In early adulthood, though, I decided to fight back. I studied the disease, bought one of those new-fangled home glucose monitoring machines, and with my husband Mike’s help and support we started testing my blood regularly. I became more vigilant about exercise, walking everywhere and swimming every other day and closely monitoring how much that exercise brought my blood sugars down. I figured out how much my favorite foods brought my blood sugars up, too, and now I inject that new fast-acting insulin six, seven sometimes eight times a day to balance the meals and snacks I like to eat. A new blood monitor at home talks — it calls my numbers out loud, so Mike doesn’t have to be around every time I want to check my sugar levels. Controlling my blood sugar keeps my weight at a steady level and gives me good overall health. Best of all – it makes me feel good.
Judge Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court gives me even more reason to think that our juvenile diabetes is not a weakness after all. It’s a strength. Living well with the disease teaches us perseverance, self-control, discipline and resourcefulness. Coordinating meals with insulin injections forces us to think ahead and make good decisions.
I fully expect Sonia Sotomayor will be raked over the coals during the upcoming Senate confirmation hearings — she’ll be asked about everything from her background in the projects to her personality to her previous rulings and probably, even her diabetes. Whether or not she’s confirmed, I’m confident she’ll endure the scrutiny just fine. This woman has lived with Type 1 diabetes for 46 years. She’s one tough bird.