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03 December 2016Last updated
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Features | The big story

In the UAE: Living with diabetes

With International Diabetes Day coming up on November 14, four UAE residents tell Sangeetha Swaroop how they found out they had the condition and how they are coping with it

Sangeetha Swaroop
11 Nov 2016 | 12:00 am
  • Source:Stefan Lindeque/ANM

With her twinkling eyes and infectious smile, 10-year-old Wiaam Bahaeldin Gafar, a resident of Al Ain, has not let diabetes hold her back from enjoying life. There’s much to learn from her positive outlook, as despite having to take four to six insulin shots daily, she believes diabetes is ‘really not a bad thing’, and that anything is possible if you have a supportive family and a good doctor.

In the case of Mohammad Ali, a native of Bangladesh and Jayant Dey from India, the two perfectly understand how work pressures can metamorphose into a medical condition when you let stress consume your life. As for Marianne D’Cunha it was an intense personal crisis that served as a trigger for the onset of diabetes 10 years ago.

Each person’s story is completely different, yet they all seem to agree that making the right choices with food, hitting the outdoors for a quick walk or run, regular monitoring and recognising symptoms and warning signs and acting on them accordingly can go a long way in helping lead an active, healthy life.

‘I have come to accept diabetes as part of my life’

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Wiaam Bahaeldin Gafar, 10, from Sudan

I remember the night in October 2013 when all I could seem to do was drink water and use the washroom every half hour. My parents were worried and so next morning my mother pricked my finger with a small instrument she’d borrowed from a friend and did a home test. I didn’t know what it was for but the urgency with which she took me to the clinic told me something was wrong. Later, I learnt that my blood sugar levels were 500mg per decilitre (mg/dl). At the clinic, where another test was done, the reading was 700mg/dl.

Calling it an emergency situation, the doctor asked us to rush to Al Ain Hospital. For the next week I was there as doctors worked hard to regulate my sugar levels. 
I was told that I had Type 1 Diabetes and that it was caused probably by a viral infection that had affected my pancreas, stopping it from functioning normally. The doctors explained the condition, gave advice on the right kind of diet, how to administer insulin shots, and so on. I wasn’t particularly afraid of the injections. In hospital, however, my parents often stood outside the room, crying, and that made me feel sad.

When I left the hospital I was asked to take four insulin shots every day. Some vitamin and calcium supplements were also given. My mother took care of everything and within five months, I was administering the insulin myself. But I kept thinking: why did this happen to me; did I do anything wrong; what will happen to me now?

It was a year later when my parents took me to Dr Amina Taha at Abu Dhabi’s Imperial College London Diabetes Centre that my outlook towards the condition changed. From her I learnt that diabetes could be manageable if I learn to recognise the changes happening inside my body. She said I could be just like any other child; and that I didn’t have to sacrifice my desires for certain foods if I ate them in moderation. Previously, I would eat a lot of junk food.

Dr Amina also guided me on how to respond when schoolmates questioned me on my condition. I talk to my classmates about diabetes and how it can change a person’s life. I’m also trying to educate them about the importance of exercising daily and choosing the right kinds of food.

Slowly, I learnt how different foods have an effect on my blood sugar levels. I began to recognise not just when sugar levels fluctuate but also what causes them to go high or low. Today, I eat lots of vegetables and fruits, milk, nuts, etc, and have switched from white to brown bread and rice. I skate, cycle and play in the park like any other child. And this year, I even observed my first Ramadan fast for an entire week!

I’ve come to accept diabetes as part of my life. I want to tell other diabetics that it is not something to fear. I want them to know that in spite of the condition you can still lead a normal life.

‘You need to be conscious you are diabetic’

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Jayant Dey, 61, from India

It’s been 17 years now since I was first diagnosed with diabetes after I visited a doctor for a cut on my hand that refused to heal. I’d also been feeling tired and a blood test revealed that I had Type 1 diabetes. I don’t think I was worried at that stage as I was neither educated by my doctor about the condition, nor did I educate myself about it.

My father was diagnosed when he was 50, and I recollect that we didn’t fret over it.

For two years I was only on tablets but was later advised to take insulin shots because of fluctuating sugar levels, which the doctor attributed to high stress. I avoided starchy and sugary foods and though I knew exercise was vital, I didn’t regularly do it.

Then, around four years ago, I was having a soft drink in the office when I felt the liquid trickling down the left side of my face. My colleagues didn’t seem to notice; and later at home, neither did my wife find anything unusual. But the next morning, I looked into the mirror and saw my face was a bit droopy on the left side. I assumed it had something to do with my eye because of numbness in that area, however I scheduled a visit with my doctor and was in for a shock.

I was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, a type of paralysis of the muscles in the face due to nerve damage. While it can strike anyone, I was told that it is related to diabetes as it is more common in people with this condition. It was then that I realised that diabetes could be unforgiving and that if you are not careful, you increase your risk for any ailment as your immunity is considerably poor.

My ophthalmologist told me that long years with diabetes had taken a toll on my eyes. Blood flowing through the veins was not reaching the retina due to perforation of the walls of the arteries and veins, a condition called retinopathy. He said my constant sugar fluctuations were the cause, even affecting vision slightly.

He recommended a reputable endocrinologist who brought me up to date on my condition, altered the dosage of my medicines, and of late, the abrupt fluctuations in my sugar levels have reduced. I am now very disciplined both with my insulin shots and my diet.

I believe the onus of managing diabetes rests upon each individual. In my case, I had the support of my wife who motivated me to be my own master and take control of my health.

The biggest change one needs to make is to be conscious that you are a diabetic and be aware that you have to follow certain rules. I neglected mine for a while and have seen what it could lead to. Eating on time – in small portions and more frequently; walking; monitoring or understanding when sugar levels rise or fall; taking your medication on time – all these go a long way in helping to stay fit and healthy.

Currently, I monitor my glucose levels on waking up and before every meal. Even when I travel, I carry my insulin shots and eat on time. Sometimes you have to be stubborn about having to refuse food, which can be difficult especially when you are a guest. It may hurt your hosts’ feelings but I have come to realise that this is my life, and sometimes I have to be selfish for my own good.

‘Diabetes calls for a major lifestyle change’

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Marianne D’Cunha, 50, from India

I first became aware that I had a medical condition when I woke up in a hospital room connected to tubes and hooked on to strange-looking machines, and I had absolutely no recollection of how I came to be there. According to the doctor, I had passed out on the road and kind passers-by took me to the nearest clinic from where I was rushed to the hospital.

For a few hours that day I’d slipped into a semi coma, and my blood pressure and sugar levels were extremely high. To say that I was terrified would be a gross understatement – until this happened, I was a physically active, seemingly healthy individual.

This was 10 years ago and I was in Toronto, Canada, where I lived at the time. It was a traumatic period as I was just coming to terms with an intense personal crisis. For almost six months I had been experiencing aches and pains, and a numbness in my right hand, which I didn’t take seriously as I was more focused on my personal challenges.

It was while walking to the bus stop that I had lost consciousness and spent the next five days in the ICU. I had no genetic history of diabetes, and the doctor suggested that the mental stress of the recent past had probably manifested into a physical condition. The continued stress at this crucial juncture of my life did not help me.

I therefore moved to Dubai to get a grip on my life and to be in a more supportive environment of family and friends. The doctor I went to prescribed four insulin injections and 14 tablets daily. I know I should have taken a second opinion immediately, but I was too preoccupied with rebuilding my life and settling into my new job that I foolishly cast aside all niggling doubts about my medication even though I felt terribly weak at times.

When there was no improvement even after 18 months, I consulted another doctor in Karama. His first words when he saw my dosage was: ‘You seem to be carrying the entire pharmacy inside your body.’

My insulin levels were so high that he concentrated first on flushing it out. I was now down to four tablets a day and that’s where I still am to this day. I am glad that for eight years now, I’ve not had any injections. Given the mental turmoil that I was going through at the time of diagnosis, I found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that I was a diabetic. It was when I accepted the situation that I was able to move on.

Yes, diabetes calls for a major lifestyle change, but it is all for the better. I walk to my workplace every day now, which keeps me active. Exercise, diet control and staying positive can drive away stress and regularise sugar levels. I would caution everyone to please take a second or third opinion when consulting a doctor on diabetes.

Now I am happy, healthy and cheerful despite knowing that diabetes will be my lifelong companion. I know I have managed it well and will continue to do so.

‘Managing diabetes requires discipline and willpower’

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Mohammad Ali, 61, from Bangladesh

Your body has become a sugar factory!’ Those were the first words that the doctor I consulted remarked on seeing my blood sugar report. At 455mg/dl he said I needed to bring down my sugar levels immediately and stabilise them through a combination of medication, food and exercise.

This was almost 10 years ago, in 2007, and for more than a month I had been experiencing tiredness, excessive thirst and increased urination. At that time, I did not have the faintest idea that these were the characteristic symptoms of diabetes; and it was on the advice of a friend that I went in for a check-up.

Initially, I found it difficult to believe that this could happen to me. My mother had turned diabetic only after the age of 70 and here I was confronting it at age 50.

Also, I work in the insurance sector and am constantly on the move, on foot, to meet my clients as I don’t drive.

I admit I had a weakness for junk food but it was not something I indulged in on a daily basis. I therefore believe the trigger could have been job-related stress, where the focus was on performance, achieving targets, and bringing in new clients.

On being diagnosed, an unknown fear crept into my mind as I’d often heard that diabetes is the mother of all diseases and that if it is not kept under control, it could lead to recurring health problems.

However, the doctor advised that I could enjoy a lifetime of good health if I took on the challenge of making certain lifestyle changes, and that is precisely what I set out to do. I avoided fatty, junk food and fried items, practised portion control, avoided sugar in direct and indirect forms, walked three kilometres daily, and continued with my medication of a single tablet a day. This helped regulate my blood sugar levels to almost normal within a matter of just three to four months, and I am fortunate to be able to maintain these levels to this day. I was also motivated by the success stories of some of my clients who have been managing the condition extremely well and leading normal lives despite having been diagnosed with diabetes more than three decades ago.

One surprising outcome of my experience with diabetes has been that I have recently developed an intense liking for traditional sweet delicacies. This was not so the case earlier. Now I find it hard to resist the sweets that are generally a staple at our festivals. This craving is so irresistible that I have even begun stealing from the fridge!

But the memory of a client who died last month because of complications from diabetes has been an eye opener. I am certain that I don’t want to end up like him. Diabetes is, after all, a manageable condition. It requires discipline, willpower and is also about making the right choices. If the end result is a healthier body, why not go that extra mile? I know I will, for my family’s and my sake.

Sangeetha Swaroop

Sangeetha Swaroop