Shelly Schutte (26) currently lives in Krabi, Thailand where she teaches English and Science. She has Type 1 diabetes.
Diagnosed at an early age
At the age of 10, on 19 February 2001, Shelly was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. She feels blessed that she was at an age where she could take responsibility for her own injections and self-care in a relatively short amount of time. However, developing the maturity to cope with diabetes in her preteen and teen years that followed was sometimes a challenge. But meeting other teens with diabetes helped. Every year, she celebrates her ‘diaversary’ with a slice of cake!
Diabetes youth camps
Two weeks after the 10-year-old was diagnosed, she attended her first diabetes youth camp in Cape Town. It was here that she realised she would be okay as there were other children out there like her.
“When I am on diabetic camp, I truly feel that I am with ‘my people’- the only people in the world who really share in this thing that is a huge part of my daily life. Being in a room full of others who all must test and inject before eating is a joy and a blessing, that is beyond words. I would recommend attending one, wholeheartedly. At the camps, children learn all about the different legs of the ‘tripod’ of managing diabetes: exercise, food and medication. But most importantly, they get to meet older and younger people with Type 1 diabetes and make friends,” Shelly says.
The 26-year-old doesn’t think the benefits of camp ends at childhood either. She has a dream of establishing a variety of diabetes programmes, including adult diabetes retreats and a ‘big sister/big brother’ programme that couples newly diagnosed diabetics with an older mentor.
There were times that Shelly believed her diabetes would hold her back, not only in her career but in life, saying: “I think every Type 1 diabetic has at some point. Managing diabetes is hard work: a full-time job on top of your full-time job! It can be difficult to prioritise both when one is being particularly needy or difficult. But there is absolutely no reason for diabetes to hold anyone back. I have pursued almost every opportunity I have wanted to pursue, and I know that when I feel diabetes is holding me back, the problem is psychological, rarely physical. There are so many incredible tools available today to manage diabetes and connect diabetics globally. Being a diabetic means having to put in some extra effort to have experiences and opportunities many consider normal. But it is not beyond reach.”
Openness as a teacher
The high school teacher tests her blood sugar every break time. She eats (and injects) on a regimented schedule and is lucky enough to receive a 45-minute lunch break, with plenty of delicious and healthy options.
She has been as open about her condition as she can, explaining, “From early on, I sent around a ‘protocol’ to describe what to do if I am ever severely low at work or if I am hospitalised and unconscious, such as numbers to call and information to give the doctors etc. I also provided my colleagues with the Youth with Diabetes (YWD) Teacher Handbook and offered to provide more in-depth training for anyone who was interested.”
“I joke about my diabetes a lot and if I am teaching a topic related to endocrinology, I will put a chart up on the wall and we track my blood sugar for the week. This not only teaches students the reality of how blood glucose levels can vary (although to a lesser extent in non-diabetics) but also helps them to understand better what I mean when I need to take 5 minutes out because of a ‘low’. By bringing my diabetes into the classroom, I try to create an environment where students feel free to ask me questions at any point.”
Not only is Shelly honest with her students but with their parents as well. Recently, on World Diabetes Day, Shelly provided parents with the YWD Teacher’s Handbook and gave a short overview of her life story. This was posted to school social media and she has had several positive conversations with parents since.
Travelling and diabetes
This brave young woman has learned so much about her diabetes while travelling, saying, “There are a whole new range of challenges to navigate. Falling ill is a major one of these. My friends and colleagues are wonderful but they don’t fully understand how scary even a simple illness can be. Fears of ketoacidosis, diabetic complications, having a low in my sleep…all are massively exacerbated when I am feeling unwell. The many fears that are a part of having diabetes are quite easily kept at bay most days. But when you are feeling down, diabetes can kick you down quite easily. I have had to learn that when I am feeling like this, the only person who can really take charge and pick myself up again is me. I’ve learned that things often seem worse than they are and even if you’re having a bad week, month or year, you can start again right now!
Logging things religiously has been one of my biggest helpers – from exercise and food to blood glucose…just the simple act of writing these things down helps me feel more in control. This assists me in making more positive decisions regarding my own health. I’ve also had to start being less blasé about seemingly small issues. I cut my hand doing a tug of war just before leaving for a trip to Bali recently. In the hectic days of traveling that followed, I didn’t care for it carefully enough and it got infected. That cost me an expensive trip to a local international clinic and it was a reminder that I always need to be extra careful.
But most of all, I feel like I’ve proven to myself that there’s very little diabetes will ever stop me from doing.
Keeping insulin safe
Shelly always travels with a portable cool pack and makes sure she stays in a hotel or hostel with a fridge, and puts her insulin into it straight away when she arrives. Short-acting pens are always in more than one bag. That way, if her bag is stolen, she’ll have short-acting insulin to get her by until she gets properly sorted out.
Obtaining medication overseas
“When I first moved over, I stayed on my South African medical aid and was granted a six month advance of test strips and insulin. After this, I was hopeful I could source my medication locally. I went to the local public hospital soon after I arrived, to make sure they had a file open on me with all my pertinent medical details. When I had two months of supplies left, I visited the hospital again to investigate if I could get my medication there. A friend has epilepsy and she is given her medication for free once a month, as per social security benefits of having a work permit in Thailand.”
“However, as we all know, diabetes is a complex condition that a lot of doctors know very little of. There is also a big language barrier to work around in Thailand. After six hours of queuing and going between floors, I was eventually given two Novomix pens. Now, aside from the fact that two insulins are not enough to last me, I, as a Type 1, cannot be on Novomix! I tried to explain this and eventually got given one Levemir and two Novorapid pens. This is still not enough to last me for long…and I was charged almost 2000 Thai Baht (about R700) for my ‘non-essential’ medical supplies.
This experience, coupled with the fact that small pharmacies are common in the area but majority of them do not sell insulin, I decided just to stick with my medical aid in SA. I return to the country every six months, see my doctor and get all medical tests done and then am given another six months of insulin,” Shelly explains.
The diabetic teacher knows this is not a long-term solution but hopes that in the next country she works in, she will have health insurance as part of her employment contract.
Read Shelly’s travel blog notalllwhowanderarelost.wordpress.com where she writes about her adventures and her diabetes.