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Living with diabetes

By Bea Quirk
May 30, 2011

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Bea Quirk was recently awarded a medal of honor by the Joslin Diabetes Center for having lived with the disease for more than 50 years. A Massachusetts native, she was treated at Joslin from 1957 to 1981. That year, she moved to Charlotte, N.C., where she is a freelance writer. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University.

For me, living with diabetes is like being a swan. Although swans appear to glide gracefully and effortlessly upon the water, underneath they are paddling like hell.

At least it has felt that way in the 53 1/2 years I have lived with the disease. I was almost 3 when I was diagnosed, and my earliest memories are of being in the hospital after my parents rushed me there in a coma. I beat the odds coming out of it — and living as long as I have.

No matter how long someone lives with diabetes, it is about managing a delicate balance: acknowledging that diabetes is an integral part of who you are, but not the defining essence. Another is taking whatever comes with humor and grace.

I try to live by the commandment “Thou shalt not whine!’’

Over the years, I have shared with only a few how tiresome it can be to always be thinking about blood sugar levels and how what I eat will affect them. It can be aggravating to always make sure I have easy access to food and insulin. I frequently have self-doubts about how well I am managing.

Losing the sight in one of my eyes over a 35-year period has not been easy. I have grieved in private over the loss and the resulting limitations. But I have found ways to get around that limitation — and others. My parents always told me there was nothing I could not do because of my diabetes, and with some resourcefulness that has remained more or less true.

Living with diabetes is not always onerous. Most days consist of graceful gliding, as the paddling underneath is second nature, something done automatically. Although I do not hide my diabetes, I am proud that many people are unaware I have it.

There have been unexpected gifts as well. I am good at planning ahead and preparing for contingencies, yet flexible when dealing with the unexpected. (Still, I tend to fret and wish I were more spontaneous.)

Diabetes has also enabled me to drink deeply from what I call the well of infinite kindness. I hope it has made me a more compassionate person. I have been the recipient of innumerable acts of kindness and generosity, large and small, that have touched both me and the giver with grace.

It is said that an African chief, in preparing his warriors for battle, told them, “I do not ask that you be unafraid. I ask that you act unafraid.’’ I have found that in living with diabetes, it is how you act in the outside world that defines you far more than the disease inside.

Bea Quirk can be reached at BeaWrites@aol.com.

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