Life, death, and a giant tinfoil MedicAlert bracelet

 Project 1

Some people are shy about discussing their diabetes. I’ve been known to make big statements.

It’s different for everyone, of course. There are those work hard to conceal their pump under clothes. Others slip into a bathroom stall to inject. Having diabetes is simply something many want to keep to themselves. While I respect their wish for privacy, I am not one of those people. And while I do not wave around my pump yelling, “I have diabetes!” if it comes up in conversation, I mention it. If someone asks me a question, I answer it. Diabetes is part of me like my eye color, height, and inability to shoot a basketball. It’s simply out there.

In fact, way back in the eight grade, I chose a pretty public forum for sharing facts about my condition, complete with a giant tinfoil MedicAlert bracelet.

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It was for the National History Day competition my school took part in every year. The theme in 1989 was “The Individual in History.” The title of my individual table-top project? Sir Frederick Grant Banting, MD. – Diabetic Lifesaver.

He and his assistant, Charles Best, are credited with discovering insulin in the early 1920’s. Yet, he was not and is not a household name. According to my project overview, “I wanted to give him some credit.” (Side note: the History Day regional organizers typed his name as “Bantling” in the program. Louis Pasteur, Al Capone, and Walt Disney, however, were all spelled correctly.)

Recently, my parents were cleaning out their attic and presented me with the bits and pieces of the project they had found, including the WWF Championship-size bracelet. As a reproduction of the one I wore everyday, I have to admit that even today I’m impressed with my elongated clasp link and engraving the judges didn’t even see.

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project 3While I used a Coca-Cola for scale in the picture, 1989 was when Madonna was Like a Prayer-ing with Pepsi-Cola . Yet this was before places like Wikipedia and WebMD made finding answers a click away, this project was the perfect excuse to learn more about my condition. And, like any curious youth, I had questions. So it’s not so surprising that I chose a topic so closely tied to my life. What is surprising to me is the mater-of-fact morbid nature of what I printed out on my father’s dot-matrix printer.

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I was unafraid to use words like “coma” and “dies.” I had a mortality rate chart made out of construction paper. I even used skeletal dogs and children before-and-after photos. (I’ll spare you those.) Sure they were effective tools for telling the story, but they weren’t exactly the most uplifting angle I could have chosen.

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To oversimplify Banting’s contribution, in July of 1921 he and his assistant figured out how to extract a crude form of insulin and injected into diabetic dogs. It worked well enough for them to try injecting it into children dying from diabetic ketoacidosis. The result? Children woke up from comas left and right, and Banting won the Nobel Prize. Medicine being a business, Eli Lilly and Company eventually got involved in purifying their miraculous solution and making it more available to the masses. The rest is history.

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Even the colorful borders (my mother’s idea) do not soften the facts. The life expectancy of a person with diabetes before the discovery of insulin was really no life at all. No vials at the pharmacy. No chance for survival. At twelve, I understood this fact. Yes, I disliked injections, but felt lucky to have been born in the 70’s and not a handful of decades earlier. And I wanted my classmates to know how amazing this historical discovery was.

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And while I know it may not be in my lifetime, I do hope that one day there will be another middle schooler doing a research report about diabetes. Only her topic won’t be about a treatment; it’ll be about the cure. Then she won’t need oversized bling and colorful borders to liven it up.

Lisa Taylor is a freelance writer, wife, and mother of two. For thirty years (and counting), she’s been living with type 1.

 

 

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