We're always excited to share stories of fellow peeps from the Diabetes Community, especially those we've had the pleasure of meeting in person on occassion.
One of those is Mike Barry in Chicago, IL, whom I saw this Spring at the Diabetes UnConference in Las Vegas. This Mike was diagnosed the same year as I was back in 1984, though he was in his teens at the time. He keeps his day job "classified," but is very open about sharing the major body challenges he's experienced, and how he dramatically changed his life over the past 15 years, taking up martial arts and other forms of exercise to help get a better handle on his health and D-management.
Today, he's here to tell you all about it himself:
A Guest Post by Mike Barry
Tae Kwon Do and Kung Fu gave me a kick in the pants to start on an insulin pump, motivated me to start running marathons, and gave me a purpose of “hitting the target precisely” in my diabetes management.
I have a black belt now, and I’d like to also think that after 30+ years of T1D, I can claim a black belt in the ring with diabetes. It took a lot of precision, and that’s something I’d like to see the medical profession and rest of the Diabetes Community embrace more often -- rather than focusing on broad targets for blood sugars or even the carbs we eat, we should practice and get in the habit of doing it right each day.
For me personally, it’s a journey that goes back a long way – and really has its foundation on where I was when diagnosed with type 1 in 1984.
My Diagnosis and College Days
At the time of diagnosis, I was 16 and had discovered punk rock, the Ramones, Black Flag and other fast, loud and aggressive music that mainlined my teenaged soul. I’ve held onto that spirit since then. I was 5’10” tall and weighed 150 lbs and lost about 30 of them in leading up to diabetes.
I spent a lot of time on the way to the restroom and, after one long night of peeing and drinking Kool-Aid (I was THIRSTY!) and a bowl of Cap’n Crunch, I started puking and my mom reasoned “we’d better go to the doctor." My primary care physician tested my BG (blood glucose) on a meter (I remember this like it was yesterday…) and I scored a 685 in my first of many BG tests. He simply said, “You’ve got diabetes, you’ll have to go to the hospital for a week or so." All I could muster was “holy crap,” and I didn’t really know what I was getting into.
Sure enough, I spent just over a week in the hospital. The insulin they gave me *immediately* made things better, and made me a big fan of it! I started on R/NPH and was glad to escape. I got back to school and things worked OK from there.
Going off to college, I of course fell into the 1980s college rock scene, and learned how to play bass. Our band, Wonkavision, toted our strobe lights around Champaign-Urbana and had a good time! In the course of carousing, it became apparent that if the keg was still rolling at 2:00 AM and my BG was 150, I’d could shoot a couple of units of insulin to fulfill my room-mately duties to get rid of all the beer before the sun rose.
These were the two shots/day and carb exchange days: shoot up for breakfast, eat, wait for the lunch crash, eat and then do it again at dinner. This was OK, as the dinner crash fed party time. And the extra bolus (a term I didn’t learn until much later, I prefer “shoot up”), came in handy. Those were heady days. I enjoyed all sorts of adventures during the 80s and a few disasters, like waking up, shooting up, falling back asleep and waking up 9 hours later in the hospital!
Things went on; I kept blazing away, high and tight with the insulin. I got older, got married and settled down and felt like I was doing pretty well blood sugar-wise. I was doing OK enough that I didn’t need to bother going to the doctor -- as the pharmacy did a great job refilling prescriptions, right?
The downside of this was that an unintended side effect of overshooting turned out to be weight gain. I’d broached the 200 lb mark in my junior year of college with a summer job at Taco John’s! Fries, tacos! I peaked at 275 lbs. Sometime around 2002-03, my old doc (the pharmacy Rx victim) cut me off, so I found a new one, by scouting out glamour shots for heavier doctors, figuring they wouldn’t bust my chops too much. I found a guy and he turned out to be an excellent doctor -- one of the best I ever had at reading me and being very helpful, everything I’d want in a doctor.
Enter Tae Kwon Do
It was 2005 when I saw the 275 on the scale. I knew I had to do something.
A friend of mine encouraged me to work out and join her Tae Kwon Do class (Korean martial arts similar to karate, but with more kicking). I hadn’t ever considered martial arts as an antidote to diabetes. But as my daughter, born in 1998, was then six years old, I figured, “This will be fun for the whole family!” Turns out, junior tolerated it but it was me who really got into it.
I had a very hard time at first, huffing and puffing and barely making it through classes. Not only was I out of shape but managing my blood sugar during hard exercise was quite the challenge. As my wife and daughter had joined up too, I couldn’t let them down!
Through studying martial arts, I learned about self-improvement and how to again be active. “Pil Sung” (Victory is Inevitable) was our Tae Kwon Do mantra and it embodied the spirit of my journey perfectly.
At first, Tae Kwon Do was overwhelming and difficult, so much that I was ready to give up at times. But my instructors and fellow students were great motivators and I kept at it.
After a couple of years, I grew stronger and at the same time, and I had also cut down on junk food and started losing weight. I felt awesome! I decided to study Tae Kwon Do more seriously -- 5 or 6 times per week. This was an amazing experience, truly life-changing.
I began walking around our neighborhood, a mile or so during the week and longer walks on the weekend. I’d noted my BG running higher in the mornings and began taking walks to get it moving in the right direction. I had BG adventures, made mistakes and sometimes found myself precariously close to dangerous lows, but I was making progress too. Tae Kwon Do involves incremental progress and as my kicks got higher and I could actually spin around and kick at the same time, I also made better food choices. I lost more weight and improved my stamina.
To me, Tae Kwon Do is pretty analogous to how we need to live with and take care of diabetes – taking it incrementally, learning to do the basics and eventually building up our stamina to endure the long haul living with this.
New Pump and Targets
Tae Kwon Do was only the start. I’d lost weight (about 85 pounds overall), but on the diabetes front I was still following my own version of MDI, hitting and missing and covering lots of crashing lows with piles of carbs-- up and down and up and down and up and down again, rollercoastering hard.
That is when I re-evaluated my insulin delivery choices. It was Spring 2008.
I had been taking R/NPH since my diagnosis and felt I was “fine.” My wife suggested I should look into an insulin pump, and as it happens a friend at work saw my meter and said to me, “You should get an insulin pump, my wife has one and loves it! We should go to dinner so she can tell you about it.” We did and I realized a pump is what I needed, so I called my doc the next day and in April 2008 got my first insulin pump.
The tools we have available have improved over the years I’ve lived with diabetes but, to me, the important part is the target. Many people with diabetes have learned fear of lows from doctors and diabetes educators and aim high to avoid them, at the guidance of their doctors who, after all, are doctors. In my own experience, it seems that when I ran higher, I often ended up lower from the dosing required to clean up messes. Aiming more tightly has been less work and, as I’ve practiced, has helped me learn to use small corrections and other tactical, micromanagement techniques to nudge my A1C towards a normal level and, for a while now, to achieve it.
Fantasy Baseball, for Diabetes
Thanks to fantasy baseball, I found the online community of people with diabetes about the time I was starting on a new insulin pump.
One of my hobbies had been that I was an avid fantasy baseball player, and had always thought that message boards were the best place to find answers to burning questions like: “Which bottom-feeding 2B will get me a hit tomorrow?” Then one day it occurred to me that maybe the same thing could apply to diabetes, so I looked around while I waited for my pump and found great friends, teachers and resources online.
I was startled at how we were all in the same place, looking for answers, wondering what our doctors were talking about, and connecting with others online who "get it" and share freely, helping each other. For fun.
Of course, finding the DOC (Diabetes Online Community) opened the door for me to meet so many great people with diabetes! Just this past March, I had a blast attending the first Diabetes UnConference in Las Vegas and made many new friends. My experience confirmed to me that we are all facing challenges, all tough and many tougher than others. I learned through both the meeting sessions on topics we chose together and through after-hours convening, eating and carousing up and down the strip, that we all benefit from spending time with our peers with diabetes.
I am looking forward to attending the UnConference again in 2016!
Martial Arts to BG Control
When I started studying Tae Kwon Do, I saw brown belts working on what I’d later learn was a tornado kick and thought, “There’s absolutely no way in hell I will ever do that” but the classes moved incrementally and, by working at it, I eventually earned a brown belt in 2009 and learned how to do tornado kicks. That was about the time my employer closed my office and we moved to Chicago.
I’ve also had a brief Kung Fu career, and have now evolved to running half-marathons and full marathons while using my trusty CGM technology. Getting into cycling saw me also becoming a Red Rider in the ADA Tour de Cure rides.
Maybe it’s what you would call a mid-life crisis in doing these adventures and taking things to the next level, but I’m proud of what I have accomplished.
During all of my adventures, diabetes was there but it didn't overwhelm; it was a challenge to be overcome and I didn’t let it stop me.
Making Diabetes Suck Less
We face many tough battles every day and many of them suck -- shots, pumps, CGMs, testing your BG, exercise challenges, and all the mental strain of dealing with a peculiarly high-maintenance disease like diabetes, day in and day out, forever, really sucks.
At the same time, we the people are in charge of ourselves. Every time we test, we can work to make it a win. If our number falls out of line, we can put effort into identifying the cause and a probable solution, and feel good about it. Then we can file that information away for next time, to inform our approach in a different way.
One huge takeaway I’ve received from using a pump is that small, incremental adjustments of .3U boluses or .025U/hour basal rate adjustments can produce significant changes in my BG. Perhaps the biggest thing that I took from Tae Kwon Do, or the smallest thing, was to hit one’s target precisely. In martial arts, it is not safe to practice with someone if they can’t control their punches, kicks or throw you correctly. And likewise, it is not safe to have diabetes habits that are sloppy and out of control.
My personal theory is that the broad BG targets that people with diabetes are given by the medical industry are a cause of many of the challenges we have. We should be focusing on targeted, specific goals, not the broad ranges broadcast by the medical community on everything from blood sugars to carbs.
These battles suck, but the more of them we win, the better we can feel about our efforts, creating a circular paradigm that builds upon itself. One victory at a time. #Iwishthatpeopleknewthatdiabetes could be a #diseaseofvictory!
Great story, Mike. You should definitely be proud of all you've accomplished in turning your life around!