7 Decades with Type 1 Diabetes

Before she passed away, chemist Heathra Whitlow shared how attitude and a little chemistry knowledge shaped her diabetes care.



In 2012, Heathra Whitlow passed away after more than 70 years of living with Type 1 diabetes. She led an extraordinary life at a time when managing diabetes was not easy. This profile was excerpted from My Sweet Life: Successful Women with Diabetes, edited by Beverly Adler.

I grew up in San Antonio and considered myself the healthiest person in the world. I finished high school in the middle of the Great Depression. My dad had lost his job a long time before, and we subsisted on the money my parents made by running a hand laundry, so I spent my afternoons helping with the ironing, doing housework, completing my homework, and selling vegetables from our small garden.

I went to a local business college and said, “I need to learn shorthand, but I don’t have any money for tuition.” The manager said, “That’s okay; we know how things are now. You can take our shorthand course. It will cost $50, and you can pay us later when you get a job.” I remember how very proud I was, years later, when I took $50 to the office to pay for that course.

But that year, I also got the mumps. Four or five years later, I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, which researchers think could have been triggered by the mumps virus. The next year, 1936, I transferred to the University of Texas at Austin, and had a scholarship. I got a job in the chemistry department, earning thirteen cents an hour, for the remaining costs. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Texas at Austin in 1939.

The injections never bothered me, but my ego took a beating. I remember thinking, “Why me?” But soon I learned that the most helpful thing you can do is to have a matter-of-fact attitude. I decided that my diabetes diagnosis would be an interesting challenge for a chemist.

You see, in those days, we couldn’t run blood sugar tests. I had a little kit for checking sugar in my urine. It consisted of a small test tube, a blue tablet (a copper compound), and another tablet which could be set on fire under the tubing. A positive test, which indicated sugar in the urine, would turn the urine orange or red. This was not very accurate, because it gave no indication until sugar was spilled (which I think happened at about 180 mg/dL).

I often had severe insulin reactions in the middle of the night, but I don’t remember that my diabetes made any difference to my quality of life. I continued trying to control my blood sugar by performing frequent tests and making immediate corrections when they were indicated.

I was working with Phillips Engineering, Inc. in Chicago when I began to have more trouble controlling my blood sugar. It was always difficult, and the process required many tests every day, with frequent corrections. In 1995, I began to feel very discouraged. I felt that I was going downhill.

I told my husband, Gene, that I wanted an insulin pump, but the cost was about $6,000, and it was not covered by our insurance plan. Gene said, “If it will help you, we’ll get it anyway.” My doctor intervened, so our insurance company did help eventually. My health improved a lot after I went on the insulin pump.

I believe that the reason I’ve survived Type 1 diabetes for 70 years is because I never allowed a high blood sugar to remain high for very long. I have worked out a very effective method that I use for managing my blood sugar. My system goes like this: I have a full-size data sheet each day. The top half of the sheet consists of a graph, where I plot the results of each test. If the test result is high, I take the necessary insulin bolus, and record that on my data sheet. With my pump, I can take boluses as small as one-tenth of a unit. If the test result is low, I eat a carefully calculated amount of carbohydrates (a mix of fast and slow) and mark the new blood sugar level with a small “x” on my data sheet.

MySweetLife_WomenWithDiabetes_300pxSometime during the 1990s, I realized that I was eligible for the 50-year awards given by Eli Lilly and Company and by the Joslin Diabetes Center, so I wrote to them to apply. The medal from Lilly and Company is silver, on a silver chain, and has a big “50” with the word “Years” below the number, and my name engraved on the back. The medal from the Joslin Diabetes Center is bronze and has a figure which looks like an Olympic runner, with a lit torch in hand. It says “Triumph for Man and Medicine” on the front, and is engraved with the words “For 50 Courageous Years with Diabetes” on the back.

My latest lab test results showed my A1C is 6.2. My doctor says that’s very good, considering the cancer and my 70-year journey with Type 1 diabetes!

You can order My Sweet Life: Successful Women with Diabetes on Amazon.com.

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