8 Valuable Life-Saving Lessons I Learned from My Dad’s Type 1 Diabetes

My dad is one of three million Americans with Type I Diabetes. Once I was old enough to grasp his condition, he helped me understand my health through his diabetes and what my future could be if I didn't take care of myself.

FamilyCourtesy Amari D. PollardAlways have a source of sugar on hand

When you think about the best foods for a diabetic diet, sugar is not what comes to mind. And yet, every person in my family carries treats on their person at all times. We have Snickers in our glove compartments, caramel candies in our purses, and the occasional bottle of orange juice in hand—anything that contains fast-acting carbohydrates. These quick-sugar foods put glucose into the bloodstream in as little as five minutes and are a tremendous help during low-blood sugar emergencies, one of the symptoms of diabetes. Whether you’re diabetic or not, you should always have food nearby because you never know when you’re going to feel faint or your blood sugar is going to dip. These are the best snacks for people with diabetes.

Your eyes can be windows to your health

Did you know your eyes can show symptoms of more than 30 conditions, and optometrists are usually the first to spot signs of potential diseases? (These are the shocking diseases eye doctors catch first.) My dad makes sure to get a comprehensive eye exam once a year because retinopathy is common in diabetics and can lead to blindness. But he also pays close enough attention to his eyes so he can tell when something’s abnormal between doctor visits. He knows the signs—a thin white or grey ring around the edge of the cornea can indicate high cholesterol, bulging eyes show overactive thyroid, cloudy eyes can signal cataracts. These are the silent signs of cataracts you should know.

Listen to your body

Our bodies communicate with us on a daily basis through stimulus responses. It’s important to be aware of these responses and have body awareness; notice how your body reacts to environmental conditions, food, and exercise. When my dad’s blood sugar is low, his eyelids droop, his reflexes are slower, and his personality gets louder. Everyone has telltale signs that suggest something odd is going on in their body, and if you catch onto them early enough, you can avoid emergencies. Don’t miss the signs your body is running low on key vitamins.

Store your medications correctly

Many diabetics, particularly people with Type I diabetes, are insulin dependent. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas, responsible for regulating blood glucose levels; and because Type I diabetics don’t produce any insulin, they have to inject it into their bodies. Insulin can stay at room temperature for up to seven days, but one of the secrets your pharmacist won’t tell you is that it’s best to keep it refrigerated because extreme change in temperature can affect its efficacy.

Proper storage is crucial for any medicine. The slightest change in heat, light, air, and moisture has the potential to not only damage the medicine, but also make it harmful because of a change in its chemistry. “Something as simple as aspirin…when aspirin reacts with moisture it becomes a different chemical,” Selig Corman, director of Professional Affairs at the Pharmacists Society of the State of New York, told ABC News. “Something that is sold as a corn remover—you wouldn’t want to ingest a corn remover.”

FamilyCourtesy Amari D. PollardKnow your family medical history

My dad was diagnosed at age 23, and before that point was unaware of the disease’s presence in his family. He came to find out later that he has an older cousin with Type I diabetes. Knowing your family history doesn’t necessarily prevent you from developing conditions and diseases, but it makes you more aware of your chances and the precautions you might need to take. It’s crucial to ask family members questions about their health and document all known family diagnoses. Diabetes, glaucoma, and Alzheimer’s run in my family, and because my doctors know my family medical history, they conduct extra procedures to check for signs. These are the things your mother’s health says about you.

Take care of your feet and hands

Your feet literally carry you through life and your hands are always at work—and that also means they’re constantly exposed to germs, dirt, and harsh substances, and when neglected can cause serious medical issues. It sounds like a no-brainer, but washing and moisturizing your hands and feet and treating cuts immediately is crucial. The cleaner they are, the less susceptible they are to infections. While infections don’t necessarily lead to disease, they do put stress on your immune system and can cause fever, headaches, and malaise. And if you have a condition, your body already has a hard enough time-fighting infections. If you have diabetes, here’s to keep your feet healthy.

Get out of your comfy chair

My dad may be 30 years my senior, but his fitness regimen has always been better than mine—which is something I both laugh and cry about. Whereas I have a tendency to be lazy and require motivation in the form of someone yelling at me to exercise, he hops on the treadmill or elliptical religiously, exercising for an hour almost every night, because he knows that higher activity levels have been shown to lower health risks. According to a Global Burden of Disease Study, people with a minimum of 600 metabolic equivalent (MET) minutes a week have a 2 percent lower risk of diabetes compared to those who don’t exercise. Exercise helps to reduce body fat, reduce insulin resistance, and help lower blood pressure, which can cause heart attacks, kidney failure, and eye problems.

You determine your health

One of the clearest memories from my childhood is slipping into my parents’ bathroom to find my dad administering himself insulin. He was sitting on the closed toilet, gathering skin on his thigh before lowering a syringe filled with insulin into his muscle. The process fascinated me, and he took my moments of curiosity as opportunities to educate: We would check our blood sugar levels together, he’d explain our levels, and when he upgraded to a pump he showed me its intricacies. The most important thing I’ve taken away from years of watching my dad navigate diabetes with composure and candor is that as much as our health can feel out of our control, we can determine it. We control our health by our level of investment, how much time we’re willing to put into research and taking care of our bodies. I’m not sure I would appreciate my health as much as I do without seeing what it takes for my dad to stay healthy. If you have diabetes, these tips are lifesavers.

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Amari D. Pollard
Amari Pollard is a Syracuse-based social media producer. She is a graduate of Le Moyne College, where she studied journalism and creative writing. She's written for publications such as Parents magazine, Popsugar, Elite Daily and Inside Lacrosse magazine. She's a news, culture and lifestyle buff who loves vintage shopping and a good nap in between rerun episodes of Sex and the City.