Growing up, I’ll never forget the first time I realized that other kids’ dads didn’t have diabetes like mine did.
I’d just finished feeding my father a grape popsicle after his blood sugar had dropped. My mom started talking about when my dad had first been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Even though I was an older child by that point, it suddenly hit me for the first time in my life that this was not exactly a normal part of every child’s daily life.
Suddenly my mind went reeling and I thought, “Wait, do you mean to tell me that not every kid feeds their dad grape popsicles from time to time?”
A different idea of normal
All at once, I realized that not every kid was trained about where the emergency stash of glucose is kept in the house (bedside drawer!). Not every kid thought it was totally normal to watch their mom feed their dad cereal when he couldn’t feed himself. And not every kid thought it was no big deal to watch their dad inject himself several times a day with medicine that’s keeping him alive. But I did.
I can say now that growing up with a father who has type 1 diabetes influenced my life in tremendous ways. It’s impacted everything from the career that I chose, to how I see the world, to my own views of health and fitness.
I’m impressed by my dad. He’s never complained that he has a lifelong, chronic disease that has stolen so much from him. I have never heard him say, “Why me?” He hasn’t given up or given in to self-pity because of his diabetes. Not once.
Unlike type 2 diabetes, type 1 diabetes is not an illness brought on my lifestyle choices. Instead, it’s an autoimmune disorder that typically starts during childhood or the adolescence years, which is why it was previously known as juvenile diabetes. With type 1 diabetes, the body attacks its own pancreas, stopping the production of insulin.
Doctors aren’t entirely sure why type 1 diabetes happens, but it’s thought that there are usually genetic factors and environmental triggers at play. For instance, my dad’s diabetes developed shortly after he had strep throat when he was 19 years old. His doctors suspect that the strep played a role.
How loving my dad has changed me
As a child, I think I just accepted my dad’s diabetes as a normal part of our life, as children do. It was just the way things were. But now, as an adult and parent myself, I can see all the various ways my father’s chronic illness — and the way he has dealt with it — has affected me, too.
Here are three ways I can think of.
1. My career
When I was about 12 years old, my dad went into a diabetic coma. Although there had been several instances of his blood sugar dropping or going too high over the years, this was the worst one yet. That’s because it happened at night while everyone was sleeping. Somehow, my mom woke up in the middle of the night with a feeling that she needed to check on my dad, only to find him close to death.
As a kid down the hallway, I stayed frightened in my bed, listening to my mom sob and cry for help while my dad’s ragged breathing filled the room. I never forgot the paralyzing fear that I felt that night and how I didn’t know what to do. That largely influenced my decision to go into the healthcare field. I never wanted to be the fearful one hiding out in the face of a medical emergency again.
2. How I see the world
A few times, my dad was made fun of for having diabetes. As a child witnessing that happen, I grew up with a profound sense of justice. I saw pretty early on that no matter how much you go through, or how much you smile and try to laugh things off, words can hurt. People can be mean.
It was a hard lesson for me as a kid because my dad never seemed to stick up for himself. But as an adult, now I know that sometimes the strongest people are the ones who live for themselves, without letting others’ judgments affect how they choose to live their lives.
There’s power and strength in being able to turn the other cheek, smile, and walk away from negativity.
3. My own health
Despite his diabetes, my dad is one of the healthiest people I know. I grew up watching him exercise, and I attribute my own love of weightlifting to playing in the room while my dad hit up his home gym.
Like his diabetes, exercise was just the norm around our house. And although my dad loves a treat now and then, he sticks to a healthy diet and lifestyle.
I think it can be easy to wave away his health in the wake of his diagnosis, as if he has to stay healthy because he has diabetes. It would also be easy to excuse him for ignoring his health because of his disease, if that were the case. But the truth is, people with chronic diseases have to make a choice every single day, just like people without chronic disease.
My dad chooses what to eat for breakfast every morning and when to head outside for his daily walk, just like I choose to ignore the pan of brownies sitting on my countertop for an apple instead. Life, my dad has shown me, is all about the small, daily choices that lead to our overall health.
Diabetes, in all its forms, is a disease that can take over your life. But thanks to my dad’s example, I have seen firsthand how it can be managed. I’ve also realized that when I make health a focus in my life, I can create positive changes, not just for myself, but for others, too.
I may have been surprised that day when I realized that not every daughter feeds her dad popsicles. But these days, I’m just grateful I had the chance to have such an incredible role model in my dad through his journey with diabetes.
Chaunie Brusie, B.S.N., is a registered nurse in labor and delivery, critical care, and long-term care nursing. She lives in Michigan with her husband and four young children, and she is the author of the book “Tiny Blue Lines.”