Taking on Type 2 in Taranaki

On our way down to Wellington, we made a stopover in New Plymouth, a small town that sits in the shadow of the great Mt. Taranaki. In one of those weird, but wonderful twists of fate, our Airbnb host ended up being a recently diagnosed type 2 diabetic and she graciously let us pick her brain about the subject. Alison was so effortlessly honest and open about her debut with diabetes that she made climbing these kinds of metaphorical mountains seem like second nature. It must be a local thing.

When were you diagnosed with diabetes?

I was diagnosed with diabetes type 2 six months ago, in June of 2016. I went to my doctor for a chronic infection and it turned out to be this huge abscess, but in trying to work out what it was, we took all these different tests. It was through those tests that my diabetes was discovered by accident.

How did you receive the news?

The first day I accepted it quite calmly, but then I went home and mulled it over a lot. I thought about how a lot of people are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes because they don’t have a very good lifestyle. They’re eating the wrong things, they’re probably overweight, and they don’t take enough exercise. So I was beating myself up a little bit about that.

Then I started reading a lot and I found two main types of literature. One will tell you all the awful things that will happen to you if you have diabetes and you don’t manage it. And that’s some pretty nightmare reading. It’s all very general. It doesn’t talk about the differences between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, but I was shocked to discover the kind of effects that can come along with poorly-managed diabetes.

Fortunately, the other source is much more positive. The basic message was that millions of people have diabetes and they manage it every day. You probably know lots of people with diabetes and you don’t even know they have it because they manage it so easily. So these were these were two competing ideas that I was working through.

 Is health care in your country private or public?

In New Zealand, thank God, we have a public health care system. My experience has been that absolutely everything associated with my diabetes has been covered. That includes my blood meter, my test strips, and my medicine (metformin and pioglitazone.) I have to pay five dollars per prescription, but only up to $100 NZD. So twenty scripts at $5 NZD a piece and after that, it’s free.

I was actually impressed that even a dietician, who was basically a private dietician, was included in my care through my doctor and I could see the dietician free of charge as well. There is a diabetes education program up at Taranaki Base Hospital and there are specialist diabetes nurses who will see you regularly. I have seen a diabetes nurse three times. The nurse and my doctor are charting my progress and every question I have, they’re available to answer. Every time I need to see a diabetes health professional, it’s free. Every treatment I need, it’s free. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live in a country where you can’t get insulin, where there is a possibility that you could die.

 

If there is anything that you could improve about the treatment that you receive, what would you suggest?

What I would improve is the assertiveness of health professionals to really emphasize to people who could be pre-diabetic is that they MUST have these tests, before it’s too late. One thing I didn’t realize is that once you have diabetes, there is pretty much is no going back. I didn’t know that and I think my doctor probably thought for awhile that I was pre-diabetic. I was having lots of symptoms that, looking back now, I realize that I had untreated diabetes.

But doctors don’t want to offend people. They don’t want to say you’re fat, you eat bad food and you don’t exercise enough. And so they don’t. Fat is a really big issue now, especially when there are people out there trying to normalize being overweight. But sometimes you have to offend people to save their lives.

 What has been one of the challenging aspects of being newly diagnosed?

It’s a real problem to go to the supermarket and see how much sugar everything has. It’s extremely difficult to measure and basically everything has sugar. I learned that back in the 80’s, everything was low fat; that was the trend. Manufacturers took the fat out of the food, but it lost a lot of its flavor and so to make up for this, they added sugar. Only, they didn’t tell anybody. Now a lot of foodstuffs will be 90% fat free, but it will have twice the amount of sugar. I mean, even cottage cheese has sugar!

A lot of stuff that I thought would be OK on a diabetic diet really isn’t. You buy a tin of tomatoes and you have to pour off all the liquid because that’s where a lot of the sugar is. So the basic decision that I have made is that I try as hard as I possibly can to go back to the primary source of the food. The bulk of my diet is fresh fruit and vegetables.

Also, the sugar-free products are always more expensive. Soft drinks – like Coca-Cola – cost less than milk and petrol so I also think people’s price sensitivity leads them to make poor choices sometimes. It seems like the supermarkets are actually your enemy. You have to have a war strategy every time you go shopping.

Is there a diabetic community in your area?

There is a Taranaki diabetes society and I’ve sent them a form. Certainly before I was diagnosed, I had never heard that there was a diabetes organization in Taranaki. One of my first impressions was that I didn’t know anyone else who was going through this or had gone through this. I was certain that a lot of people that I know must have, they just didn’t talk about it. But for me, with the new diagnosis, I felt that apart from the professionals, there wasn’t really any support.

Are you comfortable with traveling long distances with diabetes?

I’m in a situation where I can have my prescriptions filled in other countries because I can take letters from my doctor. I can take a full three months supply of the drugs that I need. The key with type 2 diabetes is that if the worst comes to the worst, you can manage your food intake. OK, it’s not the best thing to have to be doing while you’re on an overseas trip, but you can do it. You can monitor how your own body is behaving.

Do you think that the average New Zealander is well-informed about diabetes?

No, I don’t think they are. I think that the message of ways that you can be pre-diabetic and that you can pre-dispose yourself to diabetes is becoming more well-known. But when you walk down the street and you look at the number of people who are possibly pre-diabetic…you know, most of those people don’t know that.

People need to be more educated about the early warning signs for diabetes. For example, I had a great deal of trouble with my eyes and I never knew that was linked to diabetes. In fact, this time last year, I was chewing out the optometrist because I’d ordered a new pair of glasses and when they arrived they weren’t right. The pressure in my eyes was different from when they had done the eye test three weeks earlier. And even the optometrist didn’t suggest that it might be diabetes. So that really surprised me. I also didn’t know that it could affect the feeling in your feet.

 Other health care professionals – like optometrists – also need to be assertive in telling people who may have this issue that they might have diabetes. Once again, it may offend some people to talk about diabetes, but this is stuff that people have to know. I’m a militant – I’m a diabetes militant!

 Keep on fighting the good fight, Alison. You’re another diabetes militant that we feel lucky to have met!

New Plymouth Car Ride(Alison’s dogs and Ashley on the way to the beach. Apparently Ashley had the best seat in the car.)

WHERE TO STAY

At Alison’s, of course! She is a diabetes-friendly host and a great conversationalist. Check out her Airbnb listing here: https://www.airbnb.co.nz/rooms/11851699

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