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Gillian Fraser: my journey with Type 1 diabetes

When were you diagnosed with diabetes?

I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when I was 11 years old. I was very young, so it was all a little daunting. I came from a healthy family with no history of diabetes (or any other health problems at all).

I remember everything so vividly – I had lost a lot of weight, I had absolutely no energy, I was extremely thirsty (I craved milk for some reason?), and all I did for an entire week was sleep. I went to the doctor after a few days, he ran all the normal tests and told my parents that there was nothing wrong with me. He seemed unwilling to find out what was actually wrong, and he sent me home. After a few more days, with my blood sugar running rampant without my knowledge, I started to lose balance, energy, and my vision started to blur. I remember walking down the staircase one morning and my mom describes it like she saw a ghost – I was extremely skinny, I was pale as anything, my eyes were not focused, and I had no strength.

injecting insulin type 1 diabetes

My parents rushed me to the doctor, who again checked me out. He ran all the tests again (temperature, heart rate, etc) and once again said that there was absolutely nothing wrong with me. He even went as far as to ask my parents if they were having troubles at home, insinuating that I could be acting out or reacting to personal trauma. My dad was having none of it and insisted that he was not leaving the doctor’s office without him doing everything that he could to determine what was wrong. The doctor, unwillingly, did a urine test. His face went white as he saw the glucose levels, he didn’t know what to say. He did a finger prick to confirm what he expected, I had Type 1 diabetes.

My sugar levels were at 36.4 – dangerously high and close to a coma. The atmosphere in the room went from dismissive to urgent. “You have Type 1 diabetes,” the doctor said. I had absolutely no idea what that meant. I had never heard of Type 1 diabetes. I was rushed to the ER, and spent the next few days in ICU.

This was 15 years ago, yet I remember it all like it was yesterday. I don’t blame the doctor at all, yet I just wish that Type 1 diabetes was normalised in society. I feel like there has often been a stigma, or even just a lack of understanding of what diabetes really is. We can all help to change this by opening up about our journeys with diabetes, speaking out and raising awareness.

What’s been your biggest struggle with Type 1 diabetes?

Honestly, probably just keeping up the façade that everything is always okay. I have always had the attitude that diabetes doesn’t define me, and that it’s just a small part of who I am – not my identity. I have never let it be a part of my life. I thought that by doing this I was strong, but along the years I have learnt the value of opening up and being real, understanding and acknowledging that I do have a life-changing condition that requires constant attention. And that is okay.

I have tried to normalise diabetes in my own life, starting with my conversations. When I am having a bad day with my sugars, which happens all the time, I have started to admit it to others. Why is it okay for others to say that they are struggling because they have a headache, or are tired, but it is not normal for me to say that I am struggling because my glucose levels are a little out of control? This year has really been a year of realisation for me – I am proud of who I am. I am proud to open up about what I am going through. I am proud to talk about my diabetes – not to moan when things aren’t going well or boast when they are, but to normalise the conversation.

What has made the biggest difference to your diabetes management?

Oh this is an easy one! Without a doubt it has been the FreeStyle Libre flash glucose monitor. I keep saying how keen I am for tech to finally be making it into the Type 1 diabetic world. The sensor has changed my life – the data is invaluable. The sensor tracks your blood sugar for 24 hours in a day. It shows a graph and shows you your trends. After using the CGM (Continuous Glucose Monitor), I don’t think I could ever go back to finger pricks.

For example, say you wake up in the morning and test yourself – your reading says 6.4. What does this mean? Is it 6.4 and dropping? Is it 6.4 and stable? Is it 6.4 and rising? This information is critical to how you handle your diabetes. For as long as I can remember, my night time finger prick readings were usually between 6 and 9, and my morning readings were somewhere between 4 and 8. I was always happy, and my endocrinologist was always happy. Until I started on the Libre sensor. I noticed that my sugar levels were spiking up ridiculously high overnight (up to around 16 or 17), then dropping down by the time I woke up. I would never have known this and been able to correct it if not for the sensor.

I honestly want to encourage every single Type 1 diabetic to try out a CGM, if possible. It shouldn’t be a luxury, it should be a necessity. I can’t wait until medical aids in our country will step up and cover this technology. With this tech, we finally have a proper chance at living a full life.

How has the FreeStyle Libre sensor made your life easier?

In 2019 I went for my bi-annual check-up with my endo. The FreeStyle Libre rep had just popped into his offices and had given him a few sensors to hand out on a trial basis. My endo suggested that I give it a try. I was hesitant, but excited. Why not, I thought. I received the first one for free. The two weeks that followed were absolutely life changing. In one year of wearing the sensor, my HBA1C has dropped from 7.4 (which I was extremely proud of) down to 6.2 – I never thought it would be possible.

Do you find it helps to follow other people with diabetes online?

Absolutely. Although being a diabetic for most of my life, I have never really engaged with other diabetics (I didn’t know where to find them?) Last year I found the Diabetic South Africans Facebook page and it has really helped me. I have always felt rather alone on my journey, with no one ever really understanding exactly what I go through (no matter how good their intentions, how could they fully understand?) But interacting with other diabetics has been so phenomenal. I have learnt so much, I have grown so much, and I have been so inspired to be better, try harder, and enjoy my life as a diabetic!

What would you say to a diabetic who is struggling?

You are not alone. We all struggle. We all go through the highs and the lows. Nobody is perfect. Don’t be embarrassed, don’t be scared to reach out and talk. I struggled the most in my diabetic walk when I isolated myself and tried to do it all alone. Find someone to talk to – whether it is a post on the Facebook community, a diabetic pen pal (that should totally be a thing), or please reach out to me. I would love to chat. Honestly, I don’t have it all together. I don’t pretend to either. Some days I spend 100% time in target, some days I spent 20%. But I am here, and I am happy to offer an ear to simply listen.

Together we are stronger! You can message me on Instagram @gilly.fraser

living with type 1 diabetes

What makes your life sweet?

Well it certainly isn’t sugar! My life is enriched by the people around me. I am so blessed to have an amazing and supportive network of friends and family who care about me and do all that they can. Especially my darling husband Tyler, I don’t know what I would do without him. He feeds me when my sugar is low, he rubs my feet when they hurt, he changes my needles every single day before I inject – I honestly appreciate and love that boy so much.

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Sweet Life is a registered NPO/PBO (220-984) with a single goal: to improve diabetes in South Africa. We are funded by sponsorships and donations from aligned companies and organisations who believe in our work. We only share information that we believe benefits our community. While some of this information is linked to specific brands, it is not an official endorsement of that brand. We believe in empowering people with diabetes to make the best decisions they can, to live a healthy, happy life with diabetes.