It was 6:00 am on my 21st birthday. I was wide awake, yet tired and fatigued while sitting in front of one of south India’s best endocrinologists, Dr. Bipin Sethi. From whatever I could remember of the two months that had preceded this meeting, Sethi was almost the sixth doctor we met in our everyday quest to find a solution to my health problem – diabetes.
I went back home to Hyderabad after graduating from a media college in 2013. While I was excited to finally start living at home again, little did I realise that there was a dreaded disease awaiting me. It started with a huge boil, just above my butt, that practically made it hard for me to function – I couldn’t sit, walk, ride my bike, etc. To top it off, I was a reporter covering hard news for a leading English daily in the city. I used to work long hours and my work had involved going around the city throughout the day. I had little scope to complain or ponder over what this boil could actually be. Further, I had dealt with obesity and a severe case of PCOD from my menarche. So I merely dismissed this boil as a ‘heat boil’ or as an offshoot of PCOD, literally put a bandage on it, and continued functioning. A few weeks later, I was hit with the worst UTI I ever experienced. And suddenly, a month later, my entire lower body and upper body had large boils, indicating to me that it was time to give a serious look at this.
A family doctor told me to get my blood sugar tests done. As a child, my blood sugars had always been on the higher side of the normal range, so this suggestion wasn’t surprising. Except, the results of the test are what I never saw coming. My fasting blood sugar were at 267 (normal range is between 70 to 100; 100-125 is pre-diabetes) and my post lunch blood sugar at 469 (normal range should be less than 140 two hours after eating). Life came crashing down in front of me. I was 20. Just out of college, with a head full of dreams.
My mother didn’t want to believe those test results. So we went to several other diagnostic centres and doctors to get my blood sugar checked – they were all the same. Before I knew it, I wasn’t working anymore, taking 64ml insulin injection shots per day, visiting doctors/getting blood tests done every single day, eating entirely different kinds of food (although my diet was never completely unhealthy, to begin with), crying on a daily basis, feeling exhausted throughout, and finally, losing my smile. I was devastated.
While I knew that my estranged father had diabetes too, it was something he had claimed to be stress related and got when he was 35. While the hereditary angle couldn’t entirely be ruled out, I was still not sure if getting diabetes at 20 meant I had Type 1 (juvenile diabetes where the body doesn’t produce insulin, more rare and dangerous) or Type 2 (more common, insulin resistance) diabetes. After confirming with several doctors and doing my own research, I figured that it was Type 2 only, which was honestly a relief. But that did not change much. My life still looked like it was over, and my future still looked bleak. I was 20, I didn’t want to live with a chronic illness like this for the rest of my life. To make matters worse, I never knew what the way of life for a diabetes patient was like because no one else from my maternal side of the family, who I grew up with, had diabetes.
I used to wake up every morning to cinnamon powder, take walks in the fresh air, get blood sugar tested, eat under 1200 calories to keep sugar in count and roam around hospitals for the rest of the day, only to come back home more tired, fatigued, and disappointed. There was no glory or a light at the end of the tunnel for my diabetic 20-year-old self.
Me living with diabetes at 20 made my entire household dysfunctional. While I gave up on the idea of ever finding a way out of this and making my world better and brighter again, my mom never gave up on finding solutions. She was keen that her daughter was not to live like this, and she searched and searched for solutions until the day we finally reached Dr. Bipin Sethi’s office for an early morning appointment.
He looked at my test results, changed my insulin dosage, gave me a reassuring smile and said, “If you want to avoid the risk of getting a heart attack before the age of 30, get bariatric surgery done.” The surgery, which would be done with the procedure of laparoscopic sleeve gastrectomy, would involve a part of my stomach being taken out. In simpler words, a football-sized stomach would be reduced down to that of a banana. This major surgical procedure would effectively reduce a person’s capacity to eat enough medium-to-large portions of food for the rest of one’s life. It would have to be little portions every 2 hours. Of course, it does have side effects – depression and vitamin deficiencies are the most common. And if I had to keep diabetes at bay, I would have to make some major lifestyle changes – take my diet seriously and work out regularly, never indulge in too much alcohol and so on.
Bariatric surgery is essentially done for weight loss. While I measured 106 kg on the weighing machine, which is lesser than the recommended bracket for surgery, living with diabetes and obesity both, meant I could go for it. But a major surgery was a big decision, and the surgery’s side effects were severe too. We took days deciding and trying to find other solutions, but all solutions wound us back onto the surgery. So I went for it, hoping that there would some light at the end of the tunnel. And there was. Post surgery and a week-long stay at the hospital and another week’s bed rest, my blood sugar dropped down to normal levels and I started seeing some sort of future for myself again. I just had to exercise, eat right and take vitamin supplements every day, there was no compromise on this.
Today, five years after the surgery, if one asks me whether I got rid of the diabetes and weight forever, I would say no. While I lost a lot of weight and my blood sugar is perfectly under control now, I know that it has taken me sweat, blood, grit and determination to be here, and it is the same sweat, blood, grit and determination that I will probably have to show to myself, for myself, for the rest of my life. I sometimes feel bad because I will never be able to eat an entire Onam Sadhya or full Andhra meals ever again, but will I ever trade my health for my lifestyle choices? Maybe not. I am back to eating complex carbohydrates and sugar once in a while, the idea of it doesn’t scare me to death anymore, but I make sure I keep them under control. I take metformin tablets (medication for diabetes) every day to keep my PCOD under control, as I learned later, PCOD is a precursor to diabetes for a few people. I am no fan of alcohol, and definitely not a frequent consumer of aerated drinks. And as far as the side effects of the surgery are concerned, I have had a moderate to severe case of clinical depression and even vitamin B12 and D deficiency in the recent years. But unlike the time I was living with diabetes, now I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I know I can emerge out of this better and brighter.
This World Diabetes Day, I am not here to glorify the strength it takes to live with diabetes (though I immensely respect and support those who do), because I never wanted to live with it, I always wanted to fight it out. Rather, I am here today to say that keeping fit and healthy was never a choice for me, it came as a compulsion. I wish someone had told me growing up that exercising and eating right wasn’t about avoiding fat-shaming, slimming down and finding acceptance and boyfriends. I wish someone had stressed upon this to me enough that a healthy mind and healthy body are some of the most prized possessions in life. However, I believe it’s never too late to learn such lessons for anyone at any age, and self-preservation for our own good can take us a long way. Managing to live with diabetes or constantly fighting to keep it away from yourself takes courage and determination, and is a battle that needs to be fought by each of us every single day to give ourselves the best gift of all – the gift of life.