On Monday, May 9, 1966, Ann McKenzie’s parents tried to wake her up for school and to their dismay found she was in a coma. The symptoms that led up to her coma are familiar ones today to many parents whose children are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes: frequent urination, excessive thirst, weight loss. However, in the 60s, the connection between the symptoms and the disease weren’t as well known.
Ann, age nine at the time, was rushed to the hospital, and her blood sugar exceeded 600. She was unconscious for about a day. Hospital staff told her parents she was a type 1 diabetic and to expect life to be pretty rough because there weren’t many resources available to help them. Doctors said Ann should not expect to live past the age of 40.
“I was only nine years old, and I was scared to death. My mother was just as scared because she had to learn how to give insulin shots to me, when I was just skin and bones, and there were no classes for her then. She was given an orange and a syringe and told to practice. It’s the same way I learned how to give a shot,” explained Ann.
The first 10 years were the hardest for Ann and her family because there were no support groups and no Internet sites or books to research explanations to help a young person, about to enter puberty, learn how to cope with a disease that would affect her 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the rest of her life.
During her youth, Ann had hypoglycemic reactions at least once per week, which caused convulsions. Ann’s mother and father would regularly have to call an ambulance to take her to the hospital.
“The joke of the family was that I helped build part of the South Macomb Hospital because the ambulance had to visit our house so many times. I probably had maybe three to four dozen convulsions in my youth, which has caused some memory issues for me now that I’m older,” said Ann.
Ann struggled through her diagnosis, trying to watch what she ate, taking her shots (which at that time was a fixed amount of insulin administered in the morning and at night) and attending her doctor visits. But the challenges took their toll as she progressed through her teen years.
“At one point, I wasn’t really caring. I was eating sugar, and I just didn’t want to have this disease anymore. I hated it, hated being someone who was alone because I didn’t know anyone else who was diabetic. People treated me differently and didn’t know how to act around me. I was a loner for several years in school because no one knew what to do with me. It was hard for the nurses at our public school because they didn’t understand what should be done, and my mother had to educate them on what to look for.”
When Ann was 20, her then boyfriend (now husband) proposed marriage on one condition: she better manage her diabetes. “I decided at that point, it was either do or die, and that turned my life around.”
She started watching herself more closely and was introduced to Dr. Fred Whitehouse by her family doctor. “He was my miracle worker. He’s the one who helped me, and helped my husband help me, get on track and really watch my sugars.” They developed a meal exchange where Ann would have to manage fruits, vegetables, meats and breads in exchange for insulin to stay in her range. A nutritionist helped her navigate what foods within her meal exchange she should have, and Dr. Whitehouse gave her a chart of how much insulin she should give herself throughout the day based on that meal exchange. It improved her blood sugar levels.
Still, Ann had to guess what her sugars were and had to gauge by feeling. When the glucose monitor became available to her in the 80s, it was another life-changing event for her because she could actually determine when her sugars were high or low with some degree of accuracy.
Later, when the insulin pump became available, Dr. Whitehouse recommended it to Ann, but at the time, she refused to use it for the first year it was available to her, despite the fact she was regularly giving herself five injections in a day.
“It was foolish on my part, but I was afraid of the technology. The programming of the pump to figure out carbs, how to put numbers in, I wasn’t very tech savvy then. I was afraid of this little device being attached to me and not completely understanding how to control it. Finally, when I had classes and learned about how to use it, it became my best friend. The insulin pump has helped me so much over the years.”
This year is Ann’s 50th anniversary of her diagnosis. In celebration of living well beyond her doctor’s expectations at age nine, Ann said about her achievement, “It’s a miracle! I really get choked up because I’m still alive. It’s amazing. To go through what I’ve been through in my life and to get the technology to help me live a better life, it’s truly a miracle. It’s wonderful to be able to spend time with my family and my grandsons. I thank God every day.”
Ann and her family have walked for JDRF for at least 15 years and celebrated her milestone anniversary at the Detroit JDRF One Walk on Sunday, September 25. Her goal was to raise $10,000, and she has exceeded it. In total, she has raised approximately $50,000 for T1D research through JDRF.
Coaching others, Ann said, “Diabetes is a hard walk, but it’s a doable walk. You can walk it; you can really do it.”
The JDRF One Walk has a single goal: To create a world without T1D.