Australian athlete Jessica Masters was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at the age of ten. She describes the way she often felt isolated and alone and how her mother taught her to think about living with diabetes as a “secret” gift. Jessica has become an advocate for living well with diabetes and was kind enough to share her story with me!
Q: Tell me about your diagnosis.
A: I think it was old enough to want to, and be able to, take responsibility for the disease, but young enough not to be angry or in denial of the situation. I just did what I was told to, without question. I had lost a lot of weight, but it was the middle of winter and difficult to notice through all the jumpers and track pants I wore as a kid. If it wasn’t for my ridiculously unquenchable thirst my mother may not have realised something was wrong as quickly as she did.
We made the hour drive to my paediatrician and it felt like I was diagnosed within minutes. I remember Mum wanted to speak to the doctor alone so I sat in the waiting room, taking in all the pretty colours of the patient files, the bright blue walls and children’s toys scattered about the floor– every bright ball and worn puzzle piece now embedded in my memory. She came out, knelt down in front of me, and said that everything was ok; we were just going to drive to hospital so that the doctor could make me feel better. I completely believed in every word she said. To this day I thank my mother for her strength that day, and as I get older, I realise that those moments were probably more difficult for her than anyone.
On admission, my blood sugar was 27 mmol/L (about 400 in mg/dL), but I never remember feeling sick or tired, just thirsty, so very, very thirsty. I still remember stepping into the blue hospital gown and being attached to my first drip. I had that scar in my hand for years. As my crash course in Type 1 Diabetes began, the nurses would have me practice injecting insulin into an orange. I remember thinking my stomach seemed nothing like the fruit’s tough skin and became secretly worried this meant it would start to look like one!
There definitely seemed to be very little fun in diabetes back then. There were no pink blood meters and pumps or sparkly equipment bags. Everything seemed to be tailor made for an old man. As soon as I got back to school we organized for a talk to be given to my class. One boy fainted and another wanted to have his blood sugar checked too. We showed the class how I how injected by giving insulin to a teddy bear and my classmates fought over who was going to take care of me! Looking back, I am thankful I was at a small country school with such a supportive environment.
Although I took diabetes in my stride from day one, there were little things along the way, which looking back now, I wish I could tell my younger self not to worry about. Diabetes wasn’t in my family and we didn’t know of anyone with Type 1. I became quite shy and reserved, never wanting to stand out because of my diabetes, never wanting to cause a scene or draw attention to myself. In a sense diabetes took much of my confidence when I was younger, especially around my peers.
Q: When did you start running and why is it important to you? Also, how do you manage your blood sugars while running?
A: I only started running regularly about 18 months ago. It’s so important to me now, that I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without consistently implementing into my diabetes management plan. Just 20 minutes can have a huge impact on my day: mentally and physically. While it keeps my metabolism up and sets my day in motion (I predominantly go for a run in the morning), it also gives my mind a chance to de-stress and put everything in perspective. Some of the best ideas and solutions I’ll have all week come to me in that time – which just provides more incentive to push harder and get home quicker to write it all down and take action!
The summer and accompanying wet season of the tropics, with its sticky humid days and many wet mornings can often make it difficult to stick to an exercise plan but it has simply become a necessity to me now. Almost on par with taking insulin itself. I rise at 5am, test my blood sugar, inject and am out the door by 5:30am. I’m back by 6am and ensure I eat a protein and carb breakfast within the hour. I have constantly struggled with my morning blood sugars and the peak I receive after breakfast – it’s enough to sabotage my whole day! My blood sugars are very ‘sticky’ in the morning, so this schedule gets my body pumping in a short enough time period that my insulin hasn’t fully kicked in, yet I haven’t pushed so hard that I go low. My blood sugars then perform much better throughout the day, not spiking after breakfast as a flow on effect of the run.
As part of my overall exercise strategy to manage my diabetes, I try to visit the gym 3-6 times a week. I find that the mix of cardio, weights and resistance training provide unmeasurable benefits: impacting my blood sugars 24 hours a day. Lows and highs are less frequent, and when they do happen, they are much more manageable. Physically, I much more confident and it helps me to address injecting sites which have begun to ‘stick out’ over the years. Mentally, I feel confident, capable and level headed. Holistically, I am so much stronger than I have ever been.
Q: Tell me about Run for type 1 and the Cairns post run. How did you get the idea to raise money for this event?
A: Run for Type 1 is a project born from my determination to make 2012 the best year yet, particularly when it comes to diabetes. It’s not uncommon for me to have several jobs, projects, hobbies etc on the go at one time, and despite the pressure it sometimes creates, I love it; I live for it. But the constant among it all, is that I often let my diabetes be last on the list of importance. This year I decided that diabetes shouldn’t just be a ‘characteristic’ or a ‘to do’ on my daily task list. Diabetes is one of the major factors that have shaped who I am today. Someone I should be proud of. So I’m putting my journey with diabetes to good use, staring it in the face and charging forward.
Looking back now, I realize my schooling years with diabetes effected me quite deeply; I often felt alienated and hated explaining myself to new people all the time (especially if I was having a low at the time!). That’s why I’ve teamed up with Diabetes Australia – Queensland, in particular their new initiative, launched this year – Diabetes Basics. Diabetes Basics will be an an ongoing education program to provide consistent and uniform base knowledge for school communities. Specifically, the program aims to increase school knowledge, in turn providing parents and students, with diabetes, confidence in their management of the condition while at school.
Run for Type 1 is evolving every day. One of the project’s main goals to have a team participate in The Cairns Post Run for Cairns, June 1, 2012 and raise funds for Diabetes Queensland. I’m still on the hunt for sponsors, participants and donations; some days wondering if I’ll actually reach my targets! I wanted to create a fun and proactive event for the Type 1 community and figured that a fun run group is the perfect place to start. Exercise is an essential part of life, for everyone.
Q: Have you always been involved with diabetes advocacy or is this something new for you?
A: When I was diagnosed, mum taught me that I could still do everything I had hoped for (and more!): it might just mean taking a different path to get there and a backpack full of diabetic essentials: jellybeans, insulin, blood meter… Once again, I believed in, and still do, every word.
She also made me feel almost as if I knew a secret. A secret that only diabetics knew and this made me smarter and more mature than most, even some adults! The secret was the knowledge diabetes empowered me with. Through Type 1, we gain a maturity and understanding of the human body far beyond our few years on earth. We gain a strength in ourselves which can never be taught, an intuition, a faith. We see and feel the importance of a 20 minute run, a glass of juice or schedule change. We learn a sympathy and empathy that those without a health condition may never be lucky enough to possess. I believe that with the diagnosis, we inherit some of the secrets of the universe that many spend their life in search of, or worse never knowing exist. To laugh at ourselves, make good of a down right dodgy situation, find happiness in the seemingly simplest of moments, are just a couple of the qualities I’m sure everyone has found in themselves as a T1D or one they know.
Sure there are plenty of reasons to ‘hate’ diabetes, but there is no point in that. I have my ups and downs, mood swings and frustrations, and that’s ok. I take a moment to understand why I feel a certain way, action it, and move forward. To me, it’s the only way. Otherwise diabetes will rule my life in a manner I never want to know.
We have a gift in many ways. I see people struggle with diet and exercise everyday, pushing aside the need for a work-life balance, with no comprehension of the effects the two sugars in their 5-a-day coffees create, or no real understanding of why regular burgers from their favourite fast food chain are doing so much damage. I have been equipped with life knowledge I’d never want to give up. I can truly say that I can thank Type 1 diabetes for a lot: more than I could ever hate it for.
Q: Do you see yourself as a role model for young women with diabetes (you should!!) and if so, what advice would you give to them?
A: Growing up, I didn’t really have any role models as far as diabetes was concerned. I never found anyone on a similar path to the one I wanted to take, who also had diabetes. This was both daunting and challenging, and I often thought ‘well if there’s no one there, maybe diabetics just can’t do everything I want to’. I was the only T1D at all my schools and at extracurricular activities such a rowing, dancing, and drama tuition. When I completed school I was accepted into the Rotary Youth Exchange Program and spent a year abroad in Texas. I was the first diabetic to be sent on the exchange from my area and one of the few ever to be accepted into the program from Australia at the time. Throughout my bachelor degree and MBA, I was the only one in my classes and have found myself to be the first Type 1 Diabetic ever employed by all the companies I have worked for. While on the one hand it is great that the T1D community is small, meaning not many diagnoses, it’s daunting to be given a card that changes your life, only to look forward and see no one in your vision holding the same card.
What I’ve learned most is never try to be normal – what is that and who wants to be it anyway? People strive everyday to be different and stand out – well we already do! You’re special, embrace it.
- Don’t waste time being angry, frustrated or feeling guilty about a bad blood sugar or that chocolate bar you gave into: jump up and down, pout, stamp your feet, or throw something at a wall if you must, but then more forward, there is plenty of life to look forward to and good blood sugars to be had.
- Keep fit: mentally and physically. Eat well and exercise plenty – it’s the key and everyone should take a leaf from our book. Do something to clear your mind every day, your body will thank you and your positivity levels will stay in shape.
- Find the right people: your family, partner, GP, friends, whether you realize or not, they can all impact your diabetes management so make sure you’re surrounding yourself with a core team that won’t bring you down – and even better, who will give you more energy!
- Diabetes can be both a blessing and a curse, but for better or worse I have it. Rather than fight it, I need to embrace it, because this gives me peace. It also nurtures a sense of pride in who I am: where I’ve come from and where I want to go. T1D isn’t easy and knowing that we can still achieve just as well (or even better) as many without it, provides a deep sense of satisfaction and really, we have already achieved so much more.
- ‘Believing in yourself’ is an ages old adage but it’s true, particularly for a Type 1 Diabetic. Embrace your specialness, use your inherited knowledge and be the best you can be – that’s what I’m trying to do!