Wednesday November 21, 2012
Diabetes, then and now
By KUAN GUAT CHOO
“YOUR grandfather was a greedy and lazy man.” I was brought up with these words ringing in my ears. Grandfather died when I was just one and I do not remember him at all, except from what I was told through the decades. I knew though that he died of gangrene in his foot. He developed the gangrene during the terrible years of World War II.
He never had any medical care except for the ministrations of my uncle’s wife, who came over daily to change the dressing for the foul-smelling wound. I suppose she was then the best qualified person to do so as uncle was a male nurse. He was in Thailand then, sent to give medical aid to the people who were constructing the famed Bridge on the River Kwai, and nobody knew when, or even if, he would return.
But everybody knew that grandfather had diabetes because black ants swarmed all over his urine. There was no treatment and nobody knew what to do. We now know that he was constantly hungry because what he ate was not converted into energy; this also explains why he was always lethargic. All his children are very energetic and I am sure he was not a lazy man.
Grandfather would get so hungry that even late at night he would wander around looking for food, so much so that his eldest son-in-law, who was staying with him, put a padlock on the meat safe. The only food he had access to were the duck eggs but that involved starting a wood fire and boiling them.
Grandmother kept ducks because these scavengers were not picky about what they ate and did not cost much to rear.
Four of grandfather’s children “inherited” his diabetes, and my father was one of them. Fortunately, by then, medical care was available and my father lived until the age of 87.
I have inherited diabetes from my father, too. However, the care I receive now from the government hospital is so advanced. I get to see the doctor every four to six months, depending on how good I have been about my sugar intake. I get my eyes checked annually to rule out complications which could cause blindness. When cataract developed, I was operated on and my opaque lens were replaced with artificial lens, and my world was clear again.
My blood profile is checked every six months to rule out complications which could damage my kidneys and heart. I am sent to have my heart function checked out annually to rule out complications to my heart.
I am given aspirin daily to thin my blood to prevent clots forming and blocking the blood vessels – which happened to my father, causing him to have a stroke. I have my blood pressure monitored as hypertension tends to follow diabetes due to the narrowing of the blood vessels.
My aunt used to behave when it came to her food intake two to three days before every doctor’s appointment. Her fasting blood sugar level was, of course, within reasonable limits. But nowadays, I cannot cheat like that. The doctor would know because my haemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) blood profile will reveal that I had been having a jolly good time because the blood sugar level would show my average sugar consumption over three months.
Recently I was at the airport waiting to board a plane home. I did not say anything to my family but I was feeling rather peaky. My son turned around, saw my face and dashed away before anybody could ask why. He came back within minutes, holding a can of sweet drinks and made me drink it instantly.
He had not seen a ghost. What he saw was that I was pale and beads of sweat had formed on my forehead. Instantly he recognised hypoglycaemia and did not even bother to search my handbag for sweets.
I know I have to carry sweets with me all the time, but they tend to melt and become sticky. After throwing such sweets away, I often forget to replenish them.
Once, when a condescending passenger on board a flight shouted at my son, saying that he had diabetes, and then asked whether he knew what it was, my son could not help but reply: “Yes. My great grandfather was diabetic, my grandfather was diabetic, and my mother is diabetic. I probably will be one too, judging by my shape – a typical apple shape.”