I spent the summer of 1963 in Little Rock, Arkansas, visiting at my grandparents’ home. I lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, so I was thrilled to be going ‘alone’ on a Greyhound bus ride to spend the summer with my maternal grandparents.
I arrived in early May, a happy-go-lucky 9-year-old, weighing 107 lbs, and glad to be out of school. After the first two weeks, I began to have difficulties with weight loss, excessive thirst and dehydration.
My grandparents scheduled me to see their Primary Care Physician who, after examination, diagnosed my problems as a relapse of mononucleosis which I had battled in early December 1962. Trusting his judgment, they followed his prescribed treatment until it became apparent it just was not working. I had an uncontrollable thirst, my eyesight was blurred, and I could barely manage to walk unassisted.
My parents and grandparents consulted with and, then, followed my hometown pediatrician’s advice and took me to the Emergency Room at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Little Rock for an immediate reevaluation. When I entered the ER, the on call physician immediately ordered blood work, to include a blood sugar which was later determined to be a whopping 956! I only weighed 87 lbs. when admitted.
I lapsed into a diabetic coma which lasted the next four days, before the blood tests had yielded their results.
When I came out of the coma, my eyesight was extremely poor. I could not clearly distinguish what I was seeing. My physician was called in and he patiently discussed the disease with me. Over the next three weeks, my sight returned and I was able to learn the mechanics of managing diabetes with my parents’ guidance and supervision. I practiced giving insulin injections into an orange, was taught the significance of testing my urine sugar, and was also schooled in the dietary changes good diabetes management mandated.
Prior to being released, I asked to see my doctor. Remember, I was 9-years-old. When he arrived, I proceeded to tell him that I knew diabetes was a “bad” (my 9-year-old 3-letter descriptive adjective) disease and before he could speak, I said, “So, tell me, how long do I have to live?” My mother always said she was flabbergasted by my question, but, in all honesty, it was one she later said she just could not bring herself to ask, at the time. My doctor looked me in the eye and said, “Well, Roger, I honestly do not know, but I’ll go run the statistics and come back with an answer.”
Upon returning, the doctor informed me that the national average for living with juvenile diabetes in my age group was 18 years. I didn’t need an adding machine to figure out this meant I’d probably be at the ‘finish line’ around 27 or 28, so I immediately told myself that I was definitely ‘going to beat the average!” At the time, I had no clue of the challenges that lay ahead.
Diabetic treatment in the early 1960s was archaic by today’s standards. My disease was controlled by a combination of long and short-acting insulin, in association with personally-run urine sugar tests whose results were often prone to error and, thus, often led to under/over-correction. No disposable needles or syringes. This meant the glass syringes and large guage needles had to be boiled and sterilized after each use. No human insulin, no glucometers, no insulin pumps. Blood sugar tests were only run in a doctor’s office as part of regularly scheduled (ordinarily every 6 months) diabetes maintenance visits with my endocrinologist or in the ER.
I was enrolled in a Catholic elementary school with close to 1000 students, yet I was the ONLY diabetic in the fall of 1963. I struggled to ‘appear’ normal, but always seemed to stand-out due to the disease management requirements my diabetes imposed. It’s hard to convince anyone, especially children, that giving shots and running urine tests are normal. I played on the basketball team and made good grades despite the struggles. I proceeded to go to public high school, partly because I thought it would give me more of an opportunity to fit-in without the ‘stigma’ I felt I had endured in elementary school.
Anyway, when I graduated high school in 1971, I remained the only juvenile diabetic in my senior class. And, in the back of my mind, I was ‘statistically’ only nine or ten years from reaching the aforementioned national average; however, still very determined to beat the odds.
I immediately entered college on a rehabilitation scholarship to Louisiana State University (LSU). In fact, I was the first “diabetic” vocational rehabilitation scholarship recipient in the state, and it was former La. Governor John McKiethen, who after working diligently with my mother’s input and documentation derived from my physicians, convinced the state to grant these scholarships to juvenile diabetics! What a blessing!!
I graduated in the summer of 1976 with a Journalism degree and went to work as a reporter for the Jackson (MS) Daily News. Subsequently, I returned to college and received an Associate’s Degree in Computer Science and, in 1998, a Master of Science degree in Computer Information Systems.
In 1979, I began experiencing symptoms of proactive diabetic retinopathy and was treated by remarkable retinal eye specialists at the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. They, along with a strict system of diabetic control aided by treatment advances like blood sugar monitoring and the invention of human insulin, helped to save my sight. Even today, after more retinopathy treatments over the years and cataract surgery in both eyes, I do not wear glasses!
My son whom I raised by myself was born in 1984. I am extremely proud to say that he is now a Staff Sergeant in the Air Force reserves and refueling jets-in-flight in support of our nation’s defense. His strength of character is formidable having been in many, many ‘life-saving’ situations brought on by my diabetes. When I retired last year, I proudly stood with him, by my side, in a room full of my colleagues and pronounced that without his love, dedication and care, my career serving as a Systems Engineer on the US Air Force’s early warning systems (Space, Missile and Air Defense) would simply NOT have been possible!
In the summer of 2009, I was prescribed an insulin pump. Yes, after nearly five decades of as many as 5 injections/day, I was able to have my glucometer, continuous glucose monitor and pump lay the foundation for me to continue to live and thrive with my diabetes under control.
I am happily married now to my childhood sweetheart whom I met and dated beginning in 1969, only to be gloriously reunited with her in 2001. We are ‘semi-retired’ and living in Hawaii! And, yes, there are many, many stories that deal with the challenges foisted upon me and my friends and loved ones on my path of ‘survival’, but, you’d be remiss to NOT recall the ‘statistically based’ response I received in 1969. Simply put, it is now 47 (vice 18) years later and I am happy, healthy and ALIVE!
By Roger Culotta
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