Diabetes: A Family Story

When she was nine, Kayla almost died. Fortunately, her doctor suspected that Kayla might be sick with more than a virus. That was how she and her family learned that she has diabetes. In type 1 diabetes or juvenile diabetes, the body’s immune system destroys cells that produce insulin, a hormone that enables the body to turn food into energy. Without insulin, cells starve and excess sugar builds up in the blood, damaging tissues and organs. Diabetes is fatal if left untreated, and even with treatment, diabetes causes about 73,000 deaths a year. It is the sixth leading cause of death in America.

Banting and Best with a dog

Banting and Best found a way to stabilize the blood sugar levels of diabetic dogs to keep them alive. Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Diabetes was described in ancient times, but no one knew how to treat it. In 1889, a German physiologist named Oskar Minkowski removed the pancreas of a dog and found that the animal immediately developed the classic symptoms of diabetes: excessive thirst, hunger, and urination, along with fatigue and weight loss. He tried to figure out why, but it was not until 1921 that Frederick Banting and Charles Best isolated insulin from the pancreas of a dog. Banting and Best also showed that the insulin injections could eliminate the symptoms of diabetes. In 1923, Banting was awarded a share of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this discovery.

Kayla pricks her finger several times a day to test her blood sugar level and gives herself daily shots of insulin. She has to be very careful about what she eats and how much she exercises. Kayla hates the finger sticks and shots, but she knows she has to do these things to stay healthy.

A cat named Pookie

Pookie is a real cat living with diabetes. Image © the Foundation for Biomedical Research

Kayla is not the only member of her family with diabetes. Last year her Nana was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. In this disease, the pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin, or the body cannot use it effectively. Type 2 diabetes often occurs in people who are overweight and inactive. It used to affect mostly people middle-aged or older, but today even some children and teenagers develop the disease. For some patients, eating the right foods, losing weight, and exercising is enough to bring their diabetes under control. Researchers have also developed medications that increase the body’s insulin production, reduce blood sugar, and make the body more sensitive to insulin. Some people — including Kayla’s Nana — take these medications, but these drugs have risks, and many type 2 diabetics still need insulin anyway.

Kayla’s cat Mr. Purrfect also has type 2 diabetes. He has to eat special food and gets daily insulin shots too. Kayla plays with Mr. Purrfect to keep him active and keeps track of how much water he drinks and how much he uses the litter box. Their veterinarian says if the family takes good care of him, Mr. Purrfect should stay healthy for a long time.

Although Kayla, her Nana, and Mr. Purrfect aren’t real, their stories are typical of millions of people and cats living with diabetes.

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