The Godfather: Peter Corris on hypos
What diabetics most fear are hypoglycaemic reactions or ‘hypos’ as we call them. This condition results when the blood sugar, through a lack of carbohydrate or an excess of exercise or insulin, causes the blood sugar to drop drastically below normal levels. The result is sweating, mental confusion and, if not treated, unconsciousness, coma and death.
I first experienced a hypo in September 1959 shortly after I’d been diagnosed as diabetic and prescribed insulin and a diet. I was sitting reading in the back yard at home and began to feel sweaty and tired. I looked across to where there was an apricot tree in full fruit. For a very brief moment I felt a surge of optimism and understanding as if I had the key to all of life’s problems. I realised that I was having a hypo, took out the sugar cubes I had in my pocket and crunched them down. The sweating and fatigue that had alerted me ebbed, along with the vision of harmony and comprehension.
This event inclined me to the belief me that those gurus, shamans and mystics who fast and subject themselves to physical stress and claim enlightenment, have simply had hypos which some honey or sugar would have alleviated. Some, of course, may have both fasted and used hallucinogenic substances.
Other hypos have been close shaves. One was when I fell asleep after a long, hot walk on San Cristobal in what was then the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, and it took me down to a potentially disastrous low sugar level. Happily, I was awakened just in time and had the sense to gobble glucose tablets. Another happened when, foolishly, I had taken up jogging, lost weight and failed to either eat more or take less insulin. This hypo also promoted a delusion: I became convinced that my sugar was low because I had been magically cured of diabetes and all I had to do was wait until my sugar levels became normal. Bad mistake. It took ministrations from Jean and paramedics to bring me around and caused great distress; Jean had to deal with our children while I fought off the paramedics attempting to give me a glucose injection, and resulted in a broken shoulder blade and blood-smeared walls.
Once the glucometer, a device to test blood sugar, became available these episodes became few but still occurred through my carelessness or neglect to allow for changed conditions – illness, delayed mealtimes, mis-injecting, etcetera.
I’m glad to say that I never suffered a hypo while driving, with all the ill consequences that could have incurred, but I did experience one when with my children, obliging them to seek help. A shameful lapse.
Footballers, tennis players and golfers with diabetes have performed at high levels in their sports, and there are builders’ labourers, riggers and bricklayers coping with the disease in their strenuous jobs, but certainly a sedentary occupation (with the appropriate amount of exercise) provides the easiest way for diabetes management. I never had a hypo while writing fiction and only once when working as a journalist. Whether it was from a lunchtime jog or having not eaten enough for breakfast or lunch I don’t know, but I slumped in my chair at the National Times workroom and almost collapsed. By great good fortune fellow worker Adele Horin, who had a diabetic boyfriend at the time, knew what to do. She got a can of Coca Cola and persuaded me (diabetics by long training are resistant to breaking the rules) to sip. The drink is so sugar loaded it brought me around quickly.
Writing may be a good profession for diabetics, but non-diabetic writers often handle it poorly. Quite often fiction writers, even some of the best, such as Michael Connolly and Henning Mankell, get it wrong and suggest insulin when sugar is required, or have no idea of where in the body diabetics inject.
As diabetics age the warning signs for hypos diminish. Nowadays I don’t experience sweating but rather what I call an ‘inkling’ – feelings of weakness or dimming of vision. I try to act appropriately and mostly do, but having lost weight and appetite, the balance between food intake and insulin is sometimes upset.
Severe hypos damage brain cells. As someone who has endured his share of them over 60 years, I have to be careful. I carry jelly beans, a quick source of glucose, when I go out and keep some at my bedside. Where brain cells are concerned I can’t afford to lose any more.