San Francisco Bay Area resident Patrick Totty writes about his experiences living with type 2 diabetesSee all posts »
Nostalgia Just Isn't What It Used to Be
The French are masters at coming up with descriptions that we English speakers just grab and use because even our great language just can’t say it as well. Nostalgia is one of those words, from the French nostalgie, a version of the German word heimweh, meaning a painful longing for home.
These days nostalgia carries more of a sense of wistfulness or a longing for the safe “home” of the past—which is safe because we got through it alive.
The problem with nostalgia is that it casts too golden a glow on the past — we’re more likely to fixate on bygone pleasures rather than pains. When we look back lovingly at our 1995 pony car or our high school sweetheart, we forget that the car had endless, aggravating transmission problems and that our honey used to drive us nuts by saying “like” every third word.
I have my share of wistful thoughts about past decades. But realizing what people with diabetes had to go through in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s pretty much snaps me back to reality.
I recently read an interview with a type 1 woman who was first diagnosed with diabetes when she was a third grader in the early 70s. What she went through was like reading about how doctors drained George Washington’s blood in the belief it would make him better. (It didn’t.)
George’s doctors didn’t know any better, and neither did doctors 40 years ago when it came to diabetes. Even though the woman is a type 1, her description of what was state-of-the-art diabetes treatment in the 70s also rang true for us type 2s:
There was no distinction between type 1 and type 2. “Diabetes” was the one-size-fits-all description for the disease.
There were no human insulin analogs. The only insulin available was an animal insulin.
There were no fine needles for injection. The syringes of the day had what we would now consider enormous drive-through needles.
There were no blood glucose meters. To find out about your blood sugar levels, you had to set up a device called Clinitest, where you dropped a pill into a test tube and then added 10 drops of your urine to it. The results from the test were, by our standards, laughably broad and inexact:
- If the solution turned blue, you had “no sugar” in your bloodstream
- If it turned green, your blood sugar level was anywhere from 100 to 280 mg/dL
- If it turned orange, your level was anywhere from 300 to 1,200 mg/dL
Doctors didn’t know anything about counting
carbs, other than telling people, “Watch what you eat,” which probably meant
avoiding the consumption of heaps of raw sugar. People with diabetes were on
their own when it came to diet.
There were no cheap OTC glucose tablets diabetics could consume to raise their levels during hypoglycemic episodes.
There were no insulin pumps or continuous glucose monitors.
For type 2s at the time, there was only one
class of oral medication available, the sulfonylureas. Metformin wouldn’t enter
the U.S. market until 1994, and drugs like Byetta, Victoza, and Januvia were
On top of that, most insurance did not cover the costs of diabetes treatments or equipment.
So, while it’s fun to reminisce about Charlie’s Angels, disco, Mark Spitz, and Smokey and the Bandit, I think most people will understand why diabetics who lived through the 70s remember that decade a bit less fondly than others.