Helen - Interview 09
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Helen had none of the classic symptoms of type 2 diabetes, so the diagnosis was a big shock. She had been under a lot of pressure as a head teacher, was also looking after her own family and her elderly parents. She had been feeling tired and was frequently emotional. Her main complaint though was an itchy, burning sensation in her thumb and occasionally itchy feet, which she thought might be the beginnings of Parkinson's disease - which is in her family. She didn't feel especially thirsty, nor did she need the toilet any more than she always had, so when her blood tests showed high blood glucose levels, she and her doctor were surprised.
Once she realised she had diabetes, Helen drastically altered her diet and started exercising more. She lost some weight (despite not having much to lose) but the regimen proved unsustainable and the doctor advised her not to lose any more weight. She was prescribed gliclazide which seemed to make her mouth very dry and painful ('as if my teeth were being drawn out'). When she could endure it no longer, she told the GP who prescribed metformin instead. Metformin however gave her bowel problems, so she restarted gliclazide, but this time she re-examined her diet and exercise regimen and changed it a bit so that she ate a bit more, and things finally began to settle down.
Helen is now on only on half a tablet of gliclazide each day and has found a way to counter the dryness in her mouth. She eats a lot of vegetables, more pulses and less red meat. She also walks regularly, and now that she has retired she feels more relaxed. Her husband has been a huge source of support for her throughout, and she feels that her life is now well balanced.
Helen believes it helps to have a supportive partner.
Just, supportive. Also to say, 'Look, I'm quite happy to eat what you're eating. I'll have a bit more chicken or a bit more of that, but basically the same food.' That does make life easier. We didn't change our diet greatly. Except I [now] get my husband eating vegetables you'd never heard of, that he would, didn't, and also camouflaging them in different ways. So that way it's been positive from his point of view.
Helen recalled how all-consuming her condition became until she had settled into a new routine.
And I think initially you'll spend the first three months, every minute of every day, this is what your thought is. And you're waking up in the morning and you think about, 'Oh, I've got diabetes' or, 'I've got this problem to deal with or I've got that.' But it gradually gets, when the shopping's easy, and you know what you can eat is easy, and you know the timing and it's easy, and you know how much exercise you're doing and that's, becomes part of your life, so that's how you should do things. You start to get and as the days go by and you don't give it another thought, other than taking this wee pill in the morning.
Helen was healthy and the only sign that she had something wrong with her was an itchy thumb.
So I really didn't, I was too busy, my life was far too busy, I didn't pay much attention to it. But I was on holiday and, from school and I thought, 'I really must go and see about my itchy thumb.' And the doctor looked at it and he said, 'Oh, you've had allergies before. I think it's an allergy, blah, blah, blah. I'll give you some antihistamine.' But asked me other questions. Fine. He said, 'Come back and see me in a week and tell me.' So I went back in a week and said, 'It's absolutely no better.' So he then started to ask me questions and he, the question he said to me was, 'What do you think is wrong with you?' And, because I then said, 'I've got itchy thumbs and yes, I've got a bit of itchy feet and I was hot and bothered'. And he, and I said, well, I was a bit apprehensive because my grandfather had Parkinson's disease, and because of the hand feeling I just was a bit frightened of that. So he said, 'You definitely don't have Parkinson's.' And he said, 'You don't have this and you don't have that and you don't have these things.'
And he said, he then started to ask me questions. Did I go to the toilet a lot? And I said, 'No, not really.' I said, 'I get up every night to the toilet, but I've been doing that since my children were born. So it really is no more than a habit I think.' And he said, and, you know, he asked me was I thirsty. And I said, 'No, I don't think so.' And he said to me, 'You know, you're slim, so you know there's no issue about weight.' And he asked me other questions about my family. And I said, 'No, no, no, no.'
Everything was negative of all the questions he was asking me. So that was fine. He said, 'Well, we'll take some blood tests.' So I forgot about it. I went off for the weekend. And he came to the house because the results had come through and the, the blood sugar level was actually very high. So it shocked him and it certainly, it shocked me because as far as I was aware I felt healthy.
Helen was under stress at work and wonders if too much adrenaline pumping round her body might...
Yes. Not, 'Woe is me' and, 'Why me?' Because I mean that's just life. I don't know again too much about the current research and how much they feel that diabetes is maybe an auto-immune problem. I know they checked me out for auto-immune because I've had problems before with, I had hair loss, which was an auto-immune, and I also had you know, loads of allergies. And they did check me out and they said, 'No, it wasn't auto-immune.' So that's, I've put that aside. But because I've got an auto-immune problem within my own child, that had to be checked out. But that's the one thing I really would like to know really, where mine came from? What it is - did I just overload my system?
I mean there's a lot of research that I've read that said that having the adrenalin gland constantly pumping. And certainly with the kind of pressurised job, with the lifestyle I liked to lead, I was always on the go and was pumping all the time. I was aware of that.
I would have said I was on overdrive for six months, I mean really overdrive, trying to run a school in two-thirds of a building, too many people, staff stressed out their minds. Then go back into a building where they'd taken down roofs and we'd to clear up. I mean it was just, it was six months of hell. And that was only, that was in 2000/2001, so it wasn't long before. And I can look back and say, you know, I started to feel not so much energy after that. Again, you don't know. But I really, oh, that's the one thing I would like to know. Is there a family connection? They don't know. I mean one's a, that's my mother's cousin, which is kind of out there, and one's a great-aunt, which is out here. Is it to do with adrenalin stress? I don't know.
Helen says even a 20 minute walk at lunchtimes helped lower her blood glucose levels.
Well, the exercise programme, I didn't go to exercise class or anything like that. I just went out at lunchtime and I took a break for twenty minutes and I walked fast in my local environment. And also if I went to my mother's, my husband took me and I walked back. So I, or [if] I was going down to the doctor's, I walked to that. So I was actually building in exercise to my normal lifestyle. Because I knew there was no way I could go to exercise classes with how much my work took up and my family life took up. So that was fine. And then I went back to the doctor in three months and the tests were done again and, yes, it had come down a lot in that time. But by this time I'd started to ask questions of my family. And it turned out I had, my mother's cousin, at 62 he had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. And then out of the blue an aunt, a great-aunt of mine, my aunt said something about, 'Oh, yes, she had, she had sugar, and we used to weigh her food out.' But by this time I had been reading books about it and I said, 'She had type 2 diabetes.' So that was, in both my father's family and my mother's family so there was that.
Helen changed her medications several times before she stopped getting side effects. She found...
I was put on gliclazide. I had half a pill in the morning. It's long-term, lasts all day. And still with my diet. And from the minute I took it, I had this horrible, horrible feeling in my mouth and, as if I was getting my teeth drawn out. It was a horrible sensation. And I put up with it for two or three weeks and just thought, 'I can't live with this.' Went back to the doctor, changed the medication onto, I can't remember, some other, I think it was 'metmorfin'.
Metformin. And, oh, that gave me a bowel problem. And the bowel problem was such that I was getting up at 2 o'clock, 4 o'clock, 6 o'clock. It was all the time, needing to go to the toilet. But I couldn't do. So went back, I went to my, my own practitioner because I thought, 'Is there something else wrong with me?' And he said, 'I think you should go back to the diabete- and get the pill changed.' But he said, 'I'll send you to the hospital.' So I did have a complete bowel check. Everything was fine. The minute I changed the pill again it was fine. I got put back on gliclazide.
And then I was beginning to have terrible lows on it, which they were not happy about. But we persevered with it. I learned how to sort of, you know, eat a bit more, how to sort of, instead of keeping my diet quite so rigid, sort of eating more. Did test myself at that time two hours after every meal. And then things started to, sort of balanced out.
Focusing on the positive things she could do helped Helen to feel less depressed.
Because I really think I know the food I eat and I know what I can eat. And anybody that's got diabetes, the book, and I wish I could remember the name, the name of it, but I know it keeps talking about 'know your own mileage', know what your own body can do, know what you can eat, know what foods are good for you. And I find, I found once I, got rid of the obviously, the medical side of it, that I wanted to know, but 'I know about that. That's not the big issue. And if it is, I'll deal with it when, when the time comes' I was then able to dwell on all the positive things about it. Like having a good healthy lifestyle.