Recalling my diabetes diagnosis almost 40 years ago

My diary from Spring 1983

I’ve spent the last few hours shredding and sorting! It’s become necessary as I prepare to move house, ministry and life to a new parish.

I’m a hoarder so I’ve all kinds of things in the house! Much of of them will be recycled, more will go to new homes (maybe!) and more will go to a charity shop.

In a drawer, I discovered this small diary from 1983 in which I recorded a significant event in my life. I was a student for the priesthood at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, at the time. I came home from Maynooth on Fri 11th of Feb for Shrove break.

As was our “tradition” at the time, we didn’t do any study the evening before a break. We played card instead and drank tea and ate biscuits in one another’s rooms! I recall needed to get up from the card table constantly that evening to get another glass of water to drink and then to go the toilet much more than was normal.

The following day, I armed myself with several extra large bottles of 7-Up to calm the thirst on the bus to Cork. By the time we got to our half-way stop, I had to buy several more. On arrival in Cork, I took a bus to Drimoleague after getting more drinks to keep me going. In Drimoleague, I bought a couple of bottles of Lucozade and headed off on the two-mile walk home with my bag and bottles. (In hindsight, I don’t know how I managed to drag myself home!).

I got very sick that night. My parents sent for the local doctor the following morning. When he arrived he did a simple urine test and told me I had diabetes. Dr Morgan was a quiet but thorough man. He didn’t tell me much more other than I needed to go to Bantry Hospital. He weren’t down stairs and phoned the hospital and updated them and he left.

My father was the only driver in the house and he was at the creamery with he milk at this stage. I know then that diabetes had something to do with sugar so I stopped the Lucozade and switched to plain water to kill the thirst. My father came home from the creamery and did the usual chores of the day – washed the churns, put away whatever ration he bought at the creamery, had his breakfast and read the paper. It was probably well after midday before we left for Bantry.

I was only home for a few days so I only had minimum clothes with me so we’d have to stop in Bantry town to get a spare pyjamas and other essentials. By the time we got to Bantry, the thirst was out of control so I told my father I need to get something to drink. Dad, bless him, did what was natural! He took me into JJ Crowley’s Bar! He ordered a glass of Guinness for himself and asked what I’d like. That presented a dilemma as I knew I couldn’t drink most of what was on the shelf. (There were no diet drinks in bars yet!) And it would be embarrassing to ask for just a glass of tap water. So, for a reason I’ll never know, I thought sherry might not have as much sugar as Coke or 7-Up so I asked for a sherry!

Some time later, we arrived at Bantry Hospital and I was greeted by a Sister of Mercy who wasn’t showing any! She me what had kept us and did I not realise that there was a bed waiting for in the Intensive Care Unit! They rushed me through admission and in no time I was being prodded with needles and drips. What I didn’t realise at the time was that was on the verge of going into a hypoglycaemic coma (when there’s so much sugar in one’s blood that it becomes toxic and cuts off necessaries supplies to the brain)! Soon, they started to inject me with fast-acting insulin – slowly bringing the blood-sugar levels down.

All through the night, I was constantly tested and treated with more insulin. The following morning, I was introduced to my first diabetic-friendly breakfast – no orange juice and no sugar in the tea! Soon after the breakfast, the Sister who had regained her mercy came to my bed with an orange and a syringe full of water. “You need to start practising how to do the injections yourself,” she said. “The skin of the orange is like your own skin.” So now I had two reasons for not liking oranges anymore!

Two days later I was moved from the ICU to a ward where I was able to interact with other patients and walk around a bit while figuring out what various diabetic dinners looked like! (No more gravy and no jelly or custard for desert!)

Each evening, one of the Sisters led the praying of the rosary over the loudspeaker to all the wards before supper time. When Sr. Patrick discovered that I was a seminarian, it wasn’t long before she had outsourced the praying of the rosary to me. It also thrashed my quiet anonymity in the ward as I had now acquired a kind of mini-celebrity status with my fellow patients.

The other note in my diary for that week records that on Tues 15th, instead of heading back to Maynooth, I was in Bantry Hospital! But it wasn’t long before I was discharged home and a couple of days later returned to Maynooth to figure out out my new food regime would dialogue with the seminary food.

So next February marks the 40th anniversary of my diagnosis!

I’m grateful to all the medical and nursing professionals who have helped me along the way — and to family members, friends and parishioners who look out for me with the sugar-free options in their homes.