When Dan Eckerson was a teenager and newly diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, he was told his life expectancy would be only to his early 30s. Decades later he continues to live a very active life, running, hiking and playing hockey among his many athletic pursuits. People who know him may not even know he has the disease.
November is National Diabetes Month to bring awareness to diabetes and its impact on millions of Americans and to those who love them. Dan is my husband and our family knows the challenges that come with having a chronic disease and how hard it can be to manage.
Diabetes is a disease in which the body is unable to use and store glucose. In Type 1 diabetes the body completely stops producing insulin, a hormone that enables the body to use glucose, the sugars found in food, for energy. People with Type 1 diabetes must take daily insulin injections to survive. (Type 2 diabetes is when the body doesnâ€™t produce enough insulin or canâ€™t use it properly and typically occurs in people over 40 who are overweight with a family history of the disease.)
Managing diabetes is a 24-hour job.
â€śIt is tough but manageable. I take five injections of insulin a day and I work to manage the amount of food I eat with the amount of insulin I take to keep my blood sugar within a safe range,â€ť said Eckerson, adding â€śthere is nothing good about the disease; it does, however, force you to manage the food you eat, your lifestyle and push you to get exercise.â€ť
Dan has always been a very active person and he played multiple sports through high school including hockey, which he continues to play several times a week much of the year. He pushed me to be a better skier, but Iâ€™m pretty sure heâ€™d agree that he started running to (ahem) keep up with me. He is also an avid and longtime hiker who recently completed the 48 4,000-footers in New Hampshire. Physical activity can help the body use insulin better but blood sugar levels need careful monitoring.
â€śI am lucky,” he said. “All exercise makes me feel good. I need to monitor my blood sugar and make sure I have glucose tablets in case it goes too low. I check my blood sugar before and after exercise and before strenuous exercise. Like the race up Mount Washington, I decrease my daily insulin dosages.
“Running and hockey are fun. I just wish I was better.â€ť
Keeping blood sugar levels as close to a normal range as possible is the goal of diabetes management to avoid long-term complications, which can include heart attacks, blindness, kidney failure and blood vessel damage. Figuring out exactly how much insulin is required at any given time is far from an exact science, and although Iâ€™ve never heard Dan complain I have seen him frustrated when dealing with the unpredictable nature of the disease.
â€śThe worse thing is the impact the disease has on the people around me,” he said. “If you have an episode of low blood sugar you can be argumentative, disoriented, completely out of it and even pass out. That puts a tremendous strain on everyone I care about. The disease is more difficult for them at times than it is for me.”
Through the many decades of living with the disease there have been improvements such as smaller needles and blood sugar level monitoring. â€śA lot has changed in my 47 years as a diabetic but the major things are monitoring and costs,” Dan said. “Self-monitoring of your blood glucose was nonexistent when I started and now I have an attached monitor that tells me my blood glucose levels (all day), almost eliminating low blood sugar episodes. However, costs have risen from below $10 a month without insurance to almost $300 a month today with insurance.”
A diagnosis of diabetes has not held Dan back from living a full and active life. â€śI have a great family, have traveled extensively, had a rewarding career, climbed all 48 4,000-footers, run challenging races and meet other Type 1 diabetics who have done much more than I have.”
For those newly diagnosed, he said that there â€świll be times when it is tough and frustrating but you can manage it. Some days you are spot on and your blood sugars are excellent, other days you are not. Most importantly, it doesnâ€™t have to stop you.â€ť
And I concur, more often than not I run out of energy long before he does.
All diabetes facts and information are from the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, joslin.org.
On Dec. 1 is the Santa Claus Shuffle 3-mile race in Manchester, with Santa suits for the first 1,400 registered; and the Ugly Sweater 5K in Sanbornville.
Nancy Eckerson writes about running for Seacoast Sunday. You can reach her at [email protected]