A spoonful of sugar…

By Johnny Ireland

“Dad? Wake up, it’s 8.30, we’ll be late for church.”

It was a Sunday morning in August 1975. I was 11 years old. Dad and I always went to church together, but his behaviour that morning was strange. It was as if he was drunk. He was slurring his words and foaming at the mouth. He’d got up as normal, brought me a cup of tea and told me not to be late. But when I came downstairs he was asleep in his chair. We’d watched Match of the Day the night before and had gone to bed straight after. Dad hardly ever drank alcohol and he shouldn’t still be tired…

“Dad? Please wake up.”

No response. His glazed eyes didn’t recognise me.

I ran to my neighbour’s house. Aunty Barbara wasn’t my real aunt, but she and my Uncle Stan were as close as any blood relatives. My parents divorced when I was young, resulting in my sister living with my mother and me with my dad. I had to learn very early in life how to look after us both.

Aunty Barb, something’s wrong with Dad. He’s acting drunk. We need to get to church…”

On seeing Dad, Aunty Barb rushed into the hallway and dialled 999. I heard the words ‘urgent’, ‘emergency’, and ‘stroke’. Stroke? What did that mean?

It seemed a lifetime before I heard the sirens but it was actually only six minutes before the ambulance men arrived. They weren’t called paramedics in those days and women had yet to make it to the frontline of medical emergencies.

The older of the two ambulance men took one look at my dad and then smelt his breath.

“Is your dad diabetic?”

“No,” came my innocent reply, “he doesn’t drink alcohol.”

I remember Aunty Barb and the ambulance man smiling at each other. Why were they smiling? Dad was being placed on a stretcher and carried to the ambulance. What was there to smile about? I was terrified. The ambulance departed, blue lights flashing, sirens blaring.

“Come and stay with us until we find out what’s going on,” said a reassuring Aunty Barb.

Dad spent six nights in hospital to ‘stabilise his blood sugar’.

I had to ring his siblings, my real aunts and uncles. One lived in Ireland, two in America, and one in Manchester. It was my American aunt who told me that Dad had ‘the sugars’. The terminology apparently emanated from Ireland and referred to an illness called diabetes. It involved the inability of the body’s pancreas to produce its own insulin. Untreated it could lead to death. She called me a hero for acting so quickly. I didn’t feel like a hero.

Thankfully, when Dad got home he was his same old jovial self, but he said he’d have to take a daily insulin injection for the rest of his life.

It was a world without the internet but I had so many questions. What’s a diabetic? What’s a pancreas? What’s insulin? There was nothing and no-one to help and very little support to advise how to deal with the condition. My best friend at school said, ‘Never give your dad sugar, it will kill him’. Naively, I went home that night and threw away all the sugar in the house.

A few weeks later, when Dad came home from work, he was sweating really badly. It was mid-winter and freezing. He boiled a kettle, poured the hot water into a cup and asked in badly slurred words for the sugar. Panicking, I ran to Aunty Barb’s, then watched on as she tried to give Dad a sugary drink.

I remember being really scared and very confused. Dad was acting like an aggressive drunk. Then, ten minutes later, he said, “Hello son, how was school?”

Later, I went round to thank Aunty Barb. She told me to always have something sugary in the house in case of emergencies. Apparently, diabetics don’t know when they’re going to have a ‘hypo’. Another terminology that meant absolutely nothing to my 11-year-old self. What I did learn, however, was to always have a supply of Mars bars.

Living with a diabetic during the late 70s, 80s and into the early 90s was a game of Russian roulette. I would get home from school, start to make dinner and just hope that Dad would walk through the door without the need for sugar. Only when I’d heard his voice and looked into his eyes, could I relax. Going out to a party was always a worry. I had to make sure Dad got enough to eat. Weddings were the worst, especially when the food arrived hours late.

Dad suffered several of what I had learned were hypoglaecemic attacks. After one such attack, he was asked to try a new pig insulin. Looking back, I take pride in the tests that Dad undertook after diagnosis. Pig insulin was deemed to be the way forward, moving from one injection each morning to four during the day. Dad was a medical guinea pig. He attended ‘diabetic clinics’, a new phenomenon in the 90s.

Thankfully, things are very different today with Diabetes UK offering valuable support to diabetics and their families.

A friend of mine recently entered a marathon. I was in awe, wondering how a type 1 insulin dependent diabetic would handle a marathon. So I joined him for support. He arrived looking fit, displaying a small disc on his upper arm. It was his ‘alert’ to give him 20 minutes’ notice of a ‘hypo’. If only those discs had existed when my dad was around. It relayed blood sugar levels to my friend’s watch. Whenever it beeped, we stopped running so he could eat. Sometimes he injected insulin. As a non-diabetic I ate an apple and drank some water. The end result? I finished exhausted while my friend trotted home looking as fresh as a daisy!

In the UK alone, it is estimated that 3.9 million people are living with diabetes. 400,000 of those (including 29,000 children) require daily insulin. The condition doesn’t differentiate between age groups with many born into the condition or diagnosed at a very early age. Type 2 is managed purely by diet, sometimes supported with tablets.

Our lifestyles can also determine whether diabetes ever enters our lives. Exercise, diet and weight management are hugely important as well as regular health checks. It may be easier to manage now than it ever was when I was a child, but it’s still something you should strive to avoid.
There’s no sugarcoating diabetes. Stay well.