EIGHTEEN-YEAR-OLD Trinity College East student Jeshurun Noriega lives a regular life, working part-time at MovieTowne and playing sports.
He also has type one diabetes.
Having been diagnosed eight years ago, he’ll readily point out that the condition does not define him. It also does not control his life, nor is it a death sentence.
In fact, he admits most of his post-diagnosis lifestyle changes were changes he should have made himself in any case if he were to treat his body as best as possible.
Type one diabetes is diagnosed when very little or no insulin (a hormone the body needs to use blood sugar) is produced by the patient’s pancreas, resulting in high blood sugar levels.
Noriega remembers the day he was given the news by staff at the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex, Mt Hope – Emancipation Day, 2011. He remembers vividly because his blood sugar was so high it kept him warded for five days.
“The night before I went to the hospital, I felt really sick. I could’ve barely moved. Anything I ate or drank, I was vomiting it back up. And my grandmother said, ‘Well, all right, let’s go to the hospital and check it out.’ So when I went, my glucose level read 496.”
Normal glucose levels are below 100 mg/dL (milligrams per decilitre) after not eating for eight hours, and less than 140 mg/dL two hours after eating.
“It was then they diagnosed me with type one diabetes.”
But there were no warning signs in Noriega’s childhood, up until a couple weeks before his diagnosis.
“I was always an active child, playing and running,” he said.
Then red flags began to wave.
“About two weeks before (my diagnosis), I started urinating a lot. And I just thought I had a bladder infection or something like that, and thought it would have passed.
“And then, coming closer to it, I started to feel ill. I got fever, vomiting, headaches.
“But I just thought it was the flu or a simple bug or something.”
Frequent urination and weight loss are classic symptoms of type one diabetes, along with blurry vision, tiredness, slow-healing wounds and others. The symptoms typically develop over a short period.
The cause of type one diabetes is unknown, but is believed to involve a combination of genetic and environmental factors. A considerable risk factor is having a blood relative with type one diabetes.
While Noriega said he is unaware of a history of type one diabetes in his family, his father, Sheldon, has type two diabetes, and says he knows of at least two blood relatives with the same type.
In type two diabetes, the body’s cells does not produce enough insulin. It is far more common than type one diabetes.
The hormone insulin, which Noriega and his father take, helps move the glucose from the blood into the cells where it’s used for energy. They both use a glucose monitor to check their blood level twice daily, in the morning and at night. The monitor, testing strips, insulin and other medications are all provided through the Chronic Disease Assistance Programme (CDAP) at no cost.
His lifestyle changes were stark and immediate, beginning with staying in hospital until his blood sugar level dropped drastically and to a manageable level.
“When the doctor diagnosed me with type one diabetes, it changed my life, because I was accustomed living on a certain type of diet, and everything suddenly had to change.”
Such a diagnosis might adversely affect such a young person psychologically, but Noriega said he took it in stride.
“I didn’t feel fear at all, because I knew my diet wasn’t all that bad. It was more like, for that to come and strike me, I wondered what I did wrong,” he said. He was unaware at the time of the dangers posed by diabetes and complications of the condition such as an increased risk of heart disease.
People living with diabetes have an increased risk of lower limb amputation and as an avid football and cricket player, the eventual amputation of a limb would have been among Noriega’s worst case scenarios. Ulcers or wounds, which heal slowly or not at all, are the most common cause of amputation among people with diabetes.
There is always the risk of falling into a diabetic coma if the condition is not managed managed properly. A diabetic coma, which is brought on either by high or low blood glucose can lead to permanent brain damage and/or death.
“What could I have been eating to get this? Because I used to eat snacks, but not a lot of sweet snacks. (Nor did I) drink a lot of soft drinks. I always drank a lot of water.
“So it was a surprise. But I wasn’t scared.”
He said understanding the different types of diabetes put things into perspective.
“When the doctor explained everything...it made sense, but I still can’t figure out where it (type one diabetes) came from.”
He is relieved to have been sent to hospital, otherwise he could have still been unaware of his condition – to the detriment of his health.
Noriega quickly got used to a new lifestyle, which wasn’t too much of a challenge, because, he said, his diet wasn’t particularly poor to begin with. It was an unusually high level of glucose intake leading up to the diagnosis, which led to his being warded.
“(My diet changes) started off with eating less, cutting out sweets on a whole, eating certain types of fruits – and not too many – exercising; eating less carbs: flour; (and more) things like oats, and more wholewheat. They say wholewheat takes longer to pass through the blood, so it wouldn’t spike the glucose level.
“They said to exercise, try to be active: walk, run, jog, anything.
“When I got diagnosed, I was now leaving primary school to enter secondary school.”
Noriega did not gloss over the reality.
“Let’s say, for instance, that I have an engagement around the time I have to inject myself at night. It’s kind of ticklish. It’s either I take it before, which might be too early, or after, which might be too late. It’s kind of hard to work with, but when you get accustomed to it, you generally know how to move to suit.”
Asked if he had advice to offer young people living with type one or two diabetes, the younger Noriega replied, “Balance is everything, because if your sugar is too low, or too high, that’s a problem.”
He also urges children and young adults to limit their sugar intake.
“Regardless, just because you get diabetes doesn’t mean that your life is over. Certain changes have to be made, but it’s not a death sentence. You just have to manage it.”