Diabetes at 11, blind at 27: My heck-care health scare story

SINGAPORE - She never knew she had diabetes until she turned 11.

"I often suffered giddiness and fainted several times in the bathroom," said Ms Patricia Chua, now 30.

"It was only when my mother discovered ants on the toilet seat after I'd urinated that I was taken to the doctor's where I was diagnosed."

Her mother was then already diabetic and later died of complications from the disease.

Ms Chua, a former administrative officer, did not manage her condition when she was in her teens and early 20s. Today, Ms Chua is blind.

"Now I only see lights and shadows," she told The New Paper.

How could this have happened?

Said Khoo Teck Puat hospital endocrinologist Tan Hwee Huan: "Many of the complications of diabetes don't show up until after many years of the disease.

"They usually develop silently and gradually over time, even when diabetic patients do not have any signs of complications. "That's why diabetes is known as the silent killer."

About 10 per cent of adult Singaporeans have diabetes and recent reports say that diabetes is the main cause of kidney failure here, accounting for more than 60 per cent of cases.

Doctors say the number of diabetics getting kidney failure has doubled from 246 cases in 1999 to 598 last year.

They expect more patients to be hit with kidney failure because of the significant rise in the number of diabetics, from 8.2 per cent of adults in 2004 to 11.3 per cent in 2010, the most recent year with available data. In Ms Chua's case, her eyes failed.

"Until 14, my mother supervised my medication intake, making sure I had my insulin injections on time and that I ate healthily.

"But when I turned 14, she thought I was big enough to take care of my own health," Ms Chua said.

That was when everything started going downhill.

"While my friends were eating ice cream, enjoying fried rice and drinking soft drinks, I couldn't. Rather, I was not supposed to," she said.

"I was filled with angst, angry that I had this disease and had to watch my diet. After all, I wasn't feeling sick," she added.

Feeling "fine", Ms Chua threw caution to the wind and ate whatever she wanted. Also, she did not have her insulin injections regularly. She even cheated when her doctor gave her a table to chart her daily blood glucose levels.

Cheated

Cheated

"I would usually write a lower single digit number but the levels taken at Dr Tan's clinic did not reflect the table," she said, adding that there were times the levels went up three times the normal fasting target of 70 to 100 milligrams per deciliter.

"There were times I would eat a big bag of potato chips a day and drink two bottles of sweetened mint tea," she said.

Then three years ago, not only did Ms Chua lose her mother, then 49, to complications from diabetes, she also lost her sight.

"The heightened levels of blood glucose damaged the blood vessels in her eyes, causing them to thicken and also produce new vessels that are fragile," Dr Tan said.

Added Ms Chua: "I had detachment of the retina and also glaucoma. I underwent eight operations to prevent my eyesight from getting worse, but now I can see only light and shadows."

Today, Ms Chua moves about with a white cane and the help of her maid. She also attends courses at the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped to learn how to cope with her blindness.

"I hope my story will help others, especially young people living with diabetes, to realise they have to take care of their condition, lest they end up like me," she said.

What is diabetes?

What is diabetes?

Diabetes mellitus is a condition where the body fails to use blood glucose or blood sugar properly.

This is either because the body is not producing enough insulin, or because the body's cells do not respond properly to insulin, or both. There are three types of diabetes:

TYPE 1

The pancreas produces little or no insulin.

Its onset is usually sudden and the symptoms include increased urination, thirst or dry mouth, hunger, weight loss despite normal or increased eating, blurred vision, frequent or continuous infections and tingling or pain in the hands, feet or both.

TYPE 2

Also known as adult onset diabetes, it occurs when the body either resists the effects of insulin or does not produce enough insulin to maintain a normal blood sugar level.

Its symptoms are similar to Type 1 diabetes.

About 80 per cent of people with type 2 diabetes are overweight. Some people may be able to control their type 2 diabetes symptoms by losing weight, following a healthy diet or doing plenty of exercise.

GESTATIONAL DIABETES

This type affects expectant mothers and diagnosis is usually made during pregnancy.

While the majority of gestational diabetes patients can control their diabetes with exercise and diet, about 10 to 20 per cent will need medication to do so.

Undiagnosed or uncontrolled gestational diabetes can raise the risk of complications during childbirth. Babies may be bigger than normal.


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