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At Random

Wednesday, September 8, 2004

Diabetes: It won't go away (part two)

Reading Leonard Ernsbarger's very fine article, in this past Wednesday's Daily Mail, on the scourge of diabetes, I wondered if any readers might profit from my 35-year tussle with it. (diabetes, not Leonard's article)

I "came down with" diabetes in the summer of my eighteenth year (1958), when I was working at a summer job in an office in Manhattan. I didn't need to ask how I'd come to get it: my mother explained it had come down in her line of the family, that her mother had died of diabetes when she (my mother) was very young. Whether that was a medically accepted reason -- and whether it's still accepted -- I don't know, but I do know that she thought that she'd given it to me, and that she carried around that sense of guilt until the day she died.

I spent a week in New Rochelle hospital until my doctor and nurses figured out a suitable diet plan. It was all quite intricate: at lunchtime, I couldn't just stop at any corner hotdog stand. I had to find a restaurant that would be willing and able to prepare my own personal meal -- all for a price I could afford (I was making, as I recall, about $85 per week).

In the morning I had to figure out just how much physical exercise I was going to have before lunch, and take insulin accordingly. It was at best a guessing game. But if I took too much insulin I might find myself slowly sinking into a diabetic coma. This did not come to me suddenly; it was a slow process, giving me plenty of time to find a candy bar to even out my balance.

As long as I was working in New York City I found it virtually impossible to find myself a proper lunch, and so, soon, I convinced myself that I would be OK if I stayed away from pies and cakes and other such stuff. Not too far from where I worked was a wonderful place called "Hamburger Heaven," where you could get a fat hamburger and a large Coke for 85 cents. (Diet soda was unheard of in those days.) I would get a balanced meal at home for dinner.

When I was in my late teens I started off to college at New York University, at Washington Square, in Greenwich Village. And, of course, you can't make friends at college without joining them after classes on Friday at the local bar. By this time, I'd been negotiating my way around my disease for several months. I felt exceptionally good, even with an occasional Coke for lunch, etc., so I figured that unless I loaded up with a lot of booze, I'd be okay.

And so it proved to be.

And what college boy can refuse an invitation to join his friends at the "Cat and Fiddle Bar?" Not me, I'm afraid.

I suspected that my diet -- or lack thereof -- was responsible for my inability to gain any weight (I was 6 feet tall and weighed 127 pounds.). I also smoked more than two packs of Gauloises unfiltered French cigarettes each day. Boy, was I cruising for a bruising! It came at 5 a.m. Oct. 19, 1992, when I was flown to Joplin to recover from a heart attack -- I had a quintuple by-pass surgery (just like David Letterman). While recuperating, I was told by my surgeon, Joe Graham, that unless I quit smoking and followed a strict diet, I might as well kiss my life goodbye.

I sat up and took notice.

"Can I offer you a cigarette?" someone will ask.

"Thanks," I'll reply, "but my wife says if she sees me with a cigarette in my hand, she'll break my hand with a hammer. And she's not one to make idle threats."

A few years ago, despite the fact that I'd stopped smoking, I began having trouble with the circulation of blood in my legs. I had an operation on my left leg, but my right leg didn't abide by the rules, and had to be cut off 'below the knee" ("baloney," as I put it). And so now, despite the fact that my left leg is fully functional, I need to strap on a fake right leg. (Heck! No more short pants!) From this vantage point, I feel lucky to be alive at all (and my specialist, whom I saw just today, agrees with me). Twenty years of unlimited smoking of cigarettes that make Camels seem mild by contrast; very little exercise; and 20 years of unlimited sugar abuse; any one of these should have polished me off.

So, if any of you out there have diabetes, read this column, then do the exact opposite of what I did.

You'll live much longer as a result.