I have diabetes and I am a pre-hospital emergency doctor

Alan Walters (73), a pre-hospital emergency doctor, lives in Noordhoek, Cape Town. He has Type 1 diabetes.

Written by Alan Walters

I currently work as a paramedic doctor; I help run a paramedic/ambulance unit in the Cape Peninsula to the south of the City of Cape Town. My duties involve assisting on the business side, as I am a part-owner, and responding to emergency calls. My emergency response vehicle is covered in colourful stripes, has flashing lights on the roof, and an extremely loud siren.

I am 73 years old, and feel healthy and fit. At times, I carry my 30kg Bergen, oxygen cylinders and cardiac monitor up several flights of stairs to treat a heart attack or other emergencies. I may also have to help remove an injured patient from a wrecked car.

I was 29 years old when I started to lose weight, became very thirsty and passed a lot of urine. Despite being a family doctor in the UK and have worked at a hospital diabetic unit, it took a while for the penny to drop.

Of course, I was upset and worried, not knowing what the future held. I was married with two children and the third was about to be born but I resolved that life must go on. I was surprised by how quickly I got used to the insulin injections. However, adjusting to a proper diet was not easy as I had a sweet tooth but you just do what you should do.

When I was in my forties, I became swamped at work, two of my general practice partners became ill and I ended up working 18 hours a day, for several months. Under a lot of stress, eating the wrong foods, ignoring my diabetic control – I paid the price. I had visual problems and bleeding at the back of the eyes that required a great deal of laser treatment. Fortunately, that did the trick and my vision returned to normal and is fine now. I still pass the eyesight test required to obtain a driving license.

In 2000, my wife and I moved to South Africa after falling in love with the country during a holiday visiting my daughter, who married a South African.

Currently, I go to the gym twice a week, have a personal trainer and can run a kilometre in seven minutes. I have done a fair amount of mountain walking and was a keen skier. I am a qualified scuba diver, although I am not sure if Type 1 diabetes patients can do that nowadays.

Living with diabetes means keeping a watchful eye on your blood sugar with regular finger prick tests and being aware that at times your blood sugar may drop, producing a hypoglycaemic reaction. It is important that you recognise the early symptoms, such as light-headedness, dizziness, and the feeling before the sweating and shaking start.

Fortunately, I have never lost the ability to detect when hypos have started. I always, but always, carry a small pack of sweets in my back pocket. I never ever go anywhere without them, ever since my first traumatic hypo – I had been skiing in Europe and returned to my hotel room. I changed and was going down for my evening meal when the light-headed feeling started. No worries, I thought. I will very soon be eating and didn’t bother eating my sweets and in fact left them in my room. I went down in the lift. The lift broke down on the ground floor and the doors would not open. My hypo got terribly worse – I started to pour with sweat with pronounced shaking. Luckily, the doors were forced open. A waiter saw the state I was in and asked, “What are you worried about? You are on the ground floor.”

“It’s not quite as simple as that,” I replied. My lesson was learnt.

So, what jobs have I done in my life whilst being a diabetic patient? I have been a general practitioner; a hospital doctor working at a surgical colorectal unit; a colonoscopist; an acupuncturist; a British Army doctor serving in Germany; a research scientist involved in experimental treatment for cancer of the colon; and now a paramedic doctor.

As a diabetic patient, you can become pretty much anything you want to be. Okay, so perhaps you won’t be allowed to fly jumbo jets, but never the less, most things. Dr Banting and Dr Best, who discovered insulin, have given us, diabetes patients, the chance to live a pretty good life. Seize it. I love my life and I love my job. No way do I intend to stop soon.

You are in charge of your diabetes. No one else. With efficient care, you too can have a great life!