In sickness and in health – Graham and Yolandi

We speak to married couple, Graham and Yolandi Chamberlain, about how diabetes works in their relationship and why they chose a cheese wheel as their wedding cake.

Graham (33) and Yolandi (36) live in Pretoria, Gauteng. Graham and Yolandi have been dating since 2016 and got married in August 2018.

Graham Chamberlain

How did your family support you once you were diagnosed?

I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in October 2001, at the age of 16. My mother is a qualified nurse and took my diagnosis very serious. She cooked every meal with my illness in mind. It was a learning experience for my whole family and together as time went by, we learnt what my body required and how we would accommodate and adapt to my specific needs.

I consider myself very fortunate to have had the privilege of such an amazing and supportive family, who has been there for me day and night in this challenging journey as a Type 1 diabetic. Diabetes can have a serious impact on your emotions. Being diagnosed in my teenage years while enduring puberty must have played some role in my parents’ grey hair.

Ilze, my sister, has been practising karate with me since I was six. After my diagnosis, she always made sure that I had some sort of sugar with me in case of a hypoglycaemic incident.

Do you agree with the International Diabetes Federation Word Diabetes Day Theme “Diabetes concerns every family”?

Yes, most definitely! Diabetes is on such an incline and according to global diabetes statistics, 415 million adults have diabetes. That means 1 in every 11 adults has diabetes. Therefore, creating awareness and support groups for families who are affected by this illness is essential. I would love to get involved with such programmes which educate families on diabetes. Because without my family’s support, my diabetic journey would have been a lot more challenging.

How has Yolandi supported you?

From day one Yolandi has been by my side, supporting me in this daily and ever-changing illness. Her ability to understand my actions and reactions due to my blood glucose either being high or low is what really impresses me.

I know how difficult I can become if my blood glucose is high or low and this obviously has an influence on our relationship. But the fact that she can recognise and distinguish between me being irrational and me just being difficult and argumentative, keeps our relationship in balance.

Prior to me being on the insulin pump, I struggled a lot with hypoglycaemia in the evening or early morning hours, especially after karate. Yolandi insisted that I wake her up when my blood glucose level dropped, no matter what the time might be. She would get out of bed, fetch the closest form of glucose and would stay awake until my glucose level recovered.

Does Yolandi’s support help the management of your diabetes?

I often joke with Yolandi and tell her that she is the diabetes police, because she questions my decisions in a firm, yet caring and subtle way. Whenever I attempt an extra helping of potatoes or garlic bread, she would ask, “What is your blood glucose level and did you inject for that extra helping?” All this aids me in being more mindful of what I consume and helps me manage my blood glucose level that much better.

You recently changed to a Medtronic MiniMed 640G insulin pump and use Humalog insulin. Has this change been a positive one?

The change to my Medtronic 640G insulin pump has been a life-changing experience for me and my family. For years, I have been reluctant and very hesitant in the thought of having an insulin pump constantly attached to my body. Purely because I did not want to feel like a robot. I finally decided to follow Yolandi and my mother’s request to give this option a chance.

I really struggled to manage my blood glucose levels throughout the day. Work stress, karate training and daily challenges really got to me, which caused my HBA1C count to be at 12,7.

The 15th February this year, marked my first day of being on the insulin pump. It was not even a week later, when I started to feel and see the difference in my energy levels, my mood and overall well-being. In July, just six months later my HBA1C level dropped to 7,6. This is remarkable because for the first time in 17 years my count was below 8.

Tell us more about your hobbies – karate and skateboarding.

I have been skateboarding for the past 19 years but it’s purely just for fun. My talent, however, lies in karate. I started at the age of 6. I’m an instructor at the Griffins Karate Club, in Pretoria, which is affiliated to the South African Shotokan Karate Academy.

I have competed in four World Championships and recently was selected after competing in the trials for the World Championship in Slovakia next year. Karate is my passion and I take pride in having diabetes and competing on an international level.

Yolandi Chamberlain

When you started dating Graham and heard he had diabetes, were you scared?

Yes, of course I was scared. My knowledge then of any type of diabetes was none. In fact, all I knew was that Graham wasn’t allowed to eat any sugar. I had no idea that there was so much more to diabetes. I had to learn a lot as it is not just about sugar. All food and beverages had to be considered before consuming it.

I was scared that I would lose focus and start to panic or I would forget to take his blood glucose levels beforehand and inject the wrong quantity into him. Then I would be the one killing him and not diabetes.

As a partner, do you feel a responsibility to ensure Graham is managing his diabetes well?

No, I don’t feel responsible for it at all. Graham has been a diabetic for so long and he knows exactly what to do. I feel my responsibility is to help him when he can’t help himself. As his partner, I feel that I must know all about diabetes. Just in case he needs my help, I must know what to do.

You decided to have a cheese wheel rather than a traditional cake at your wedding. Explain the thinking behind this.

I felt it was unreasonable to have a traditional sweet cake when Graham is not allowed to eat it. After all it was his wedding as well. So, I came up with the idea and made the ‘cake-cutting’ part of the canapés at the reception.

What is your worst fear with Graham having diabetes?

I am afraid that the day will come when he loses his vision or some of his organs. I am afraid of losing him in at an early age.

How has Graham’s diabetes changed your life? 

In the beginning of our relationship, there was much to learn. Not only about food and beverages. I had to learn to have patience when Graham’s blood glucose was high and he felt irritated. I had to learn to give him some time for the insulin to take effect. I had to learn that when we go out, or go camping, it’s not as easy as packing and jumping into the car. Preparation for Graham needs to be done. We must keep his insulin cold all the time and it is essential for him to have enough Coke or any type of glucose.

But as you start knowing diabetes and your partner, it starts getting easier each day. Diabetes doesn’t have to come between people in a relationship. It made me a better person and brought me a lot closer to Graham.

Have you seen a change in Graham since he is using the pump?

From the time Graham got his insulin pump, our life has changed drastically and all for the best. He is feeling more constant and happier than before and I could see the difference in him almost immediately. I am so very grateful for the insulin pump and the change it brought to his health.


Laurelle Williams is the Editor at Word for Word Media. She graduated from AFDA with a Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in Live Performance. She has a love for storytelling and sharing emotions through the power of words. Her aim is to educate, encourage and most of all show there is always hope. Feel free to email Laurelle on [email protected]