Ethan (19) changes lifestyle to manage shock type 1 diabetes diagnosis
Ethan Williams (19) was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes mere months before he started writing his final matric exams. With lifestyle changes and daily insulin injections, he quickly managed to get his blood sugar levels under control.
"The most obvious symptom for me was needing to urinate quite often and feeling dehydrated. I was drinking a lot of water. I also lost about 10kg in the space of a few weeks," says Ethan. His mother, Mariette, adds: "We weren't that worried about the weight loss because the whole family had had a tummy bug. But the frequent bathroom visits, especially in the night started becoming very noticeable."
In April 2022, Ethan and his mom visited their GP, who tested his blood sugar. "The test showed that my blood sugar was very high and they told me I have type 1 diabetes. I was shocked by the diagnosis," says Ethan.
- Type 1 diabetes is a chronic disease which occurs when beta-cells (insulin-producing cells) in a person's pancreas are damaged. People with type 1 diabetes need insulin injections to control their blood sugar.
Stabilising Ethan's blood sugar levels
Ethan spent the next three hours at the doctor's practice as they tried to stabilise his blood sugar levels. "It never occurred to me that he might have diabetes," says Mariette. "The doctors treated it like an emergency. I was in denial at the diagnosis because Ethan seemed to be functioning normally. I kept asking 'are you sure?' and 'how can this be?' My dad has diabetes and my association with the disease is one of immense family stress."
During the consultation, Ethan was given insulin injections, several blood tests were taken, and he was given information on how to administer the insulin shots at home as well as how he would need to modify his lifestyle to manage the condition.
"It was a steep learning curve"
Ethan has had to make several changes to manage his diabetes. "To keep my blood sugar levels stable takes a combination of using the correct amount of insulin and eating the right things. I take insulin four times a day: One shot of long-lasting insulin at night and a shot of short-acting insulin with every meal. My diet had to change too because I ate a lot of bread and sugary things. Now I eat mostly low carbohydrate foods," he says.
"Whenever my sugar levels are too high or low, I must correct it using insulin or by eating something. Fortunately, my sugar levels are well managed and usually quite stable these days." "But it was a steep learning curve at first. We had to work hard to bring that initial high reading down. My blood sugar levels were erratic and would go quite high or low, especially at night. After a few weeks I got used to the regular injections and my blood sugar levels stabilised."
For the first six months after his diagnosis, Ethan went for monthly check-ups at his doctor. He now only goes every three months.
Ethan also wears a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) - a discreet disk on his upper arm - which measures his blood glucose (sugar) levels regularly. "I spent time researching the CGM and found it interesting to learn how it works, its limitations and how to understand the readings it gives me."
Ethan, his family, and his doctor can access the CGM readings on a mobile app.
Ethan's family makes lifestyle changes to support him
Ethan's family have also made lifestyle changes to accommodate his needs. "We started eating low-carb meals as a family as soon as we got home from that initial doctor's appointment," says Mariette.
"I unpacked all the kitchen cupboards and got rid of all sugary and high carbohydrate products. We stopped buying sweets. We've also had to separate groceries and meals for my elderly mother-in-law, who lives with us, and has different food preferences."
"We've all adapted our cooking. Ethan also cooks and now he knows how to make meals like bolognaise without spaghetti, so that he can look after himself when he eventually leaves home."
Ethan continues to excel
Despite the disruptions caused by his diabetes diagnosis, Ethan continued to do well at school - and was awarded for being his grade's top achiever. "If anything, my schoolwork has actually gotten better since my diagnosis," he says. "Before that I'd become increasingly unfit, and I was often tired in class. That has gotten progressively better since I started my diabetes treatment."
"My friends have been really supportive. They didn't make a big deal of it, which helped normalise my transition."
He is still planning to study computer science at university next year, although he won't be able to stay in the university residences as planned, because they don't cater for special dietary needs.
"Find a doctor who is interested, passionate and knowledgeable"
"We are Discovery Health Medical Scheme (DHMS) members, and I was so surprised and thankful that they made a partial payment towards Ethan's CGM," says Mariette. "All his doctor's visits and medicine are covered by DHMS too. I'm so grateful, because without that it would've been a massive outlay of funds monthly."
"Another thing that that was crucial for us was that the doctor gave us his phone number and told us to keep in touch with him over WhatsApp," says Mariette. "That was a real god send!"
"The day after Ethan's diagnosis was a public holiday and we had so many questions. I kept a detailed log of what and when Ethan ate, how much insulin he took, and what his readings were, to send to the doctor. I sent him questions for a few days in a row to make sure we understood how our new routine should work."
"I think it's so important for diabetes patients to find a doctor who is interested in and passionate about their patients and knowledgeable about diabetes."
- DHMS members have access to essential screening and prevention benefits to check for various chronic conditions, including diabetes. DHMS pays for your Health Check from your Screening and Prevention Benefit. This means that it won't affect your day-to-day benefits. Vitality members can get points for doing your Health Check.
- The Discovery Diabetes Care Programme, together with your Premier Plus GP, will help you actively manage your diabetes. The programme gives you access to various tools to monitor and manage your condition and ensures you get high quality coordinated healthcare.
Joining and participating in Discovery's Diabetes Care Programme has helped Neil Packery to go from needing between 35 and 40 units of insulin a day to needing only 10 to 15 units a day to achieve healthy blood sugar levels. For someone who has lived with poorly controlled diabetes since age 22, this has given a significant boost to his health.
37-year-old Rakesh Mithal was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in January 2020. He has since made every effort to live more healthily and prevent the progress of the disease. Joining the Discovery Health Diabetes Care Programme has ensured he and his doctor work in partnership to manage his condition.
Ensuring good quality of life for people who live with diabetes is key for general practitioner (GP) Dr Christel Olivier. She works towards this goal with the support of the Diabetes Care Programme and the team of health professionals she works with at her practice.