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Learning to cope and finding hope

Duncan Morrical, 13, right, with his dad David, holds the insulin pump that helps keep him alive by regularly administering insulin. - Sharon Tiffin/News staff
Duncan Morrical, 13, right, with his dad David, holds the insulin pump that helps keep him alive by regularly administering insulin.
— image credit: Sharon Tiffin/News staff

Duncan Morrical discovered that he had type 1 diabetes on his seventh birthday. His family was returning from an excursion to Salt Spring Island when he needed to go to the bathroom every five minutes. He was also extremely thirsty.

“I spent the trip home going between the water fountain and the bathroom,” Duncan said. “I’d been thirsty all day and did the absolute worst thing by drinking a lot of Coke.” Unbeknownst to Duncan, the sugar in the soft drink raised his blood sugar, causing his body to try to flush it out through urination, which in turn dehydrated him even more. “The more I drank, the thirstier I got,” he recalled.

What followed is still a bit of a blur to Duncan and his parents, Susan and Dave Morrical, who took him to their doctor. The youngster was quickly sent to the hospital. When he arrived at the emergency room, his blood sugar level was 35. Normal blood sugar concentration or blood glucose level in the blood is in the range of four to eight.

Duncan was admitted to hospital for a two-week stay during which medical staff managed to stabilize his condition and determine the levels of insulin he would need to function. It was a difficult process for the young boy.

“In the first 48 hours he had 37 finger pokes (blood tests) and I.V. draws,” recalled Susan. “He was very brave, and the staff were great, but it was a hard time.”

During that time, Susan and Dave each took a week off work to be trained by the diabetic teaching team who gave them the hard facts about the disease.

“Was there a fear factor? Absolutely,” Susan said. “Still, it wasn’t as scary as it got later.”

Later the family learned that even with careful management and the use of an insulin pump, Duncan was never really in control of his disease. “There’s never a point with kids (with diabetes) where you’re consistently in a good place. Anything can throw him off, a stressful day, a cold, or even if he decides to grow.”

David recounted how, on three separate occasions, he checked Duncan’s blood sugar levels after his son had fallen asleep to find that Duncan had “crashed.”

“On those three occasions, if I hadn’t checked, Duncan wouldn’t have woken up in the morning,” David said.

Today, more than nine million Canadians live with diabetes or pre-diabetes (a condition which, left unchecked, will result in type 2 diabetes). Nearly one million Canadians are like Duncan, and have the more serious type 1 version of the disease.

There is no cure for diabetes but management and treatment options have improved substantially. “My first (insulin) pump was this big thing with a back pack and this big, green screen,” Duncan said. He holds up his current pump, a machine that fits in a small pouch he wears on his belt. “This is a lot better,” he said.

Duncan manages to live a reasonably normal life. He goes to school and participates in activities like skating, and he finds that his school mates are accepting of his condition. “They’ve learned too, and that helps a lot,” he said.

But even with improved treatment, the prognosis for Duncan and others with type 1 diabetes is not a happy one. “The typical timeline from diagnosis to consequences like vision loss and amputations is 15 to 20 years,” Susan explained. “There is nothing to say that he’s going to be fine by the time he’s 30.”

Research continues and there is always hope for a better treatment or even a cure.

Dr. Timothy Kieffer, professor and researcher at the University of British Columbia, is one of many experts searching for a cure. “We have encouraging results that support the notion it will be possible to reverse diabetes by transplant of insulin-producing cells derived from stem cells,” Keiffer said. “The ultimate goal of our research is to find a cure.”

It’s a hope that’s shared by Duncan and his family. “I still believe that we can cure this and I still hope and believe that there is a cure,” Susan said. “Diabetes sucks, but it’s a part of our lives.”

November is Diabetes Awareness Month. For more information on diabetes and how to donate to continuing research, go to diabetes.ca.

Banting and Best

Prior to 1922, anyone diagnosed with diabetes had a disease that would inevitably lead to death.

In early 1921 Dr. Frederick Banting approached professor John Macleod at the University of Toronto with an idea for a cure and Macleod reluctantly allowed Banting a small, poorly equipped laboratory and an assistant, Charles Best.

By the fall of 1921, the pair isolated material that dramatically prolonged the life of diabetic dogs. Banting felt that it was time for human testing and he and Best began by injecting themselves with the extract.

In January of 1922, a young diabetic named Leonard Thompson was the first to receive insulin. He’d been near death, but miraculously regained strength and appetite.

By 1923 large-scale production of insulin began, less than two years after the start of research.

In that same year, the Nobel Prize Committee awarded Banting and Macleod the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Banting was furious, insisting Best should have shared the prize. He ultimately gave Best half of the cash award.

The patent rights for insulin were given to the University of Toronto where the income was used to fund further medical research.

Did you know?

More than 300,000 Canadians live with type 1 diabetes. It is an auto-immune disease wherein the pancreas stops producing insulin, the hormone that allows people to get energy from food. The cause is not understood, but it is unrelated to diet or lifestyle.

Onset of the disease is sudden and it can strike at any age, affecting children and adults alike.

Type 1 diabetes is managed through diet control, blood tests and insulin injections, but insulin is not a cure, nor does it prevent the possibility of longterm effects like kidney failure, blindness, nerve damage, amputation, heart attack or stroke.

Life expectancy for people with type 1 diabetes may be shortened by as much as 15 years.

Early warning signs of the disease include:

extreme thirst

frequent urination

lack of energy

increased appetite

vision changes

weight loss

fruity odour on the breath

heavy breathing

unconsciousness

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