How I Managed To Shorten My Lifespan By Pursuing My Goals
By: Katherine Itacy, Esq.
I was always a really motivated, hard-working kid. My mom managed to earn two master’s degrees while working full-time and, along with my dad, raising two kids — one of whom (yours truly) was struggling with brittle Type 1 diabetes by the age of four.
My dad traveled to and from Warwick, Rhode Island and Boston, Massachusetts, every work day for his job as a federal investigator, and was often logging a good fourteen-to-sixteen-hour workday. He’d be out of the house before my brother and I got up for school in the morning, and would understandably be asleep within thirty minutes of returning home in the evening.
They both demonstrated excellent work ethics, and always encouraged my brother and I to work hard at whatever we do in life.
The thing is, with me being a diabetic, I let that “you can be anything you set your mind to” work ethic metaphorically suck the life right out of me!
You see, having brittle Type 1 diabetes (T1D) is nothing short of a slow-moving death sentence to begin with. While I hope this isn’t the case with later generations of diabetics, as of now, a Type 1 diabetic is set to live a full twelve years less than the average American. And as of 2015, diabetes remained the seventh most prevalent cause of death in the United States.
T1D leads to increased risk of developing gum disease, heart disease, having a heart attack, and/or a stroke. It can lead to nerve damage, gangrene and amputation of the toe, foot, and/or leg, eye disease, macular edema, cataracts, glaucoma, and/or blindness, is the leading cause of kidney disease, and can even cause sexual and bladder problems!
I’m not one for shock and awe, but these potential diabetes-related symptoms, disorders, and diseases are legit.
And while there are a variety of ways in which a Type 1 diabetic (and a Type 2 diabetic) can reduce their risk of the aforementioned conditions, if you underestimate the evil ways in which diabetes will attack nearly every organ in your body, you will almost certainly feel its wrath.
So, back to the part where I shortened my own lifespan.
It all started when I picked up a relatively new event in female track and field during my high school years: the hammer throw, and its brute indoor version, the twenty-pound weight throw. After my first year competing, I was the top freshman in the country, and was one of the top ten throwers in the event nationwide. By my second year competing, I was national champion and setting class records. And by the end of my high school career, I’d earned five Rhode Island state championships and eight national titles. I’d also competed against the 2000 Olympic gold medalist in the hammer throw and placed ahead of her at the World Junior Championships in Santiago, Chile.
So yeah, I was implementing that work ethic and then some.
But I’d also managed to severely neglect my diabetes in a myriad of ways. I wasn’t checking my blood sugar levels; I was gorging on food without covering it with the appropriate dosage of insulin; and I was lying to my doctors and my entire support system about what I was doing.
This form of diabetic eating disorder went on throughout my senior year of high school, during all four years of competing in NCAA Division One athletics while attending Penn State, during my three years of law school, and well into my legal career operating my own law practice in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Towards the end of about ten years of this behavior, I began to pay for my negligence. From 2010 to 2014, I underwent well over thirty surgeries to save my vision, including over two dozen laser surgeries (each of which involving the doctor shooting six hundred laser points into my eyes), two vitrectomies (i.e., the ophthalmologist surgically removing blood from my eyes), and two cataract surgeries. I had severe diabetic retinopathy (i.e., eye disease), and I was in real danger of going blind…fast.
Check out how gnarly one of my eyes looks from all of the laser surgeries:
During that same time, I was also having difficulty moving my fingers, making a fist, and holding various objects in my hands, and could feel my elbows and wrists going numb. I’d ended up developing tenosynovitis (also referred to as “trigger finger syndrome,” which was a bit ironic for me being so anti-gun at the time), as well as nerve damage (i.e., diabetic neuropathy) in both arms and wrists (I’d later develop neuropathy in my legs and feet as well). These conditions required another half-dozen surgeries between 2010 and 2014.
And let me tell you, as if poor vision and limited use of one’s hands wasn’t bad enough for a practicing trial and appellate attorney, undergoing surgery every few months for four straight years while trying to operate a law firm was just bananas. I ended up needing to shut down my law firm and take a less stressful job in order to pay more attention to my health (and save myself from impending blindness and/or death).
Now, I’m not that big of a masochist that I blame all of these diabetes-related complications solely on my own behavior. I know with lukewarm certainty that I most likely would’ve developed some of these eventually, especially now that I’m beginning my fourth decade of having T1D. The way I understand it, the longer you have this spiteful disease, the more ways in which it decides to attack your body.
But I know for a fact that I helped speed up the process.
That’s why I’m now so focused on trying to get the word out there about diabetes management.
Almost 10% of the U.S. population had some form of diabetes as of 2015, with well over one million Americans suffering from T1D. And sadly, with limited health care, insurance coverage, and diabetes education out there for many a diabetic, there is a real need for continued advocacy on this subject.
No one with any form of diabetes needs to go through what I have thus far. And for the most part, if they make the effort and have the appropriate resources, they probably won’t have to!
Now, in no way am I suggesting that diabetics are unable to take on major responsibilities. Diabetics are able to (and have) achieve major feats, despite having this debilitating disease. You just can’t ignore the realities of your body while trying to reach your goals. And that goes for all people out there, not just diabetics.
You must maintain your health if you want your best chance at living a long, healthy life.
In the end, your actions (and inactions) may not win out over physical disabilities and disorders. In my case, an unrelated childhood spinal tumor ended up forcing me into early retirement based upon disability.
My days are now mostly spent in bed, enduring constant spinal (as well as polyneuropathy) nerve pain and a wide variety of other symptoms from my recurring tethered spinal cord and my T1D. I’m now physically unable to practice law, am essentially night blind, have intense light sensitivity and very limited peripheral vision. I’m unable to do even the most basic chores, and tend to sleep for a good four-to-six hours each day due to chronic fatigue.
And while I still have the memories (and trophies, medals, plaques, and championship rings) from my days as an elite athlete, as well as my awards from days as one of the top rising criminal defense and appellate attorneys in Rhode Island, they’re not doing me much good besides gathering dust on the shelves and walls. I’d much rather be out there, continuing with my social justice and medical activism and criminal defense.
My childhood tumor might have taken me out for the count, but I can’t help but wonder about what my future could have been, had I taken better care of my T1D as a teen and young adult; how many additional people I might’ve been able to help, had I still been a practicing attorney.
It’s admirable to prioritize your ambitions and goals, but not at the expense of your health.
My regrets over my youthful sense of invincibility have led me to write a memoir regarding my last thirty years, which I’ve entitled “From National Champion to Physically Disabled Activist: My Lifelong Struggle With A Diseased Body, And The Lessons It Has Taught Me Along The Way.”
I want my mistakes to be used as cautionary tales for others — especially other T1Ds.
You don’t have to shorten your lifespan in order to achieve your goals. In the end, I bet a smarter version of me would’ve achieved far more as a healthy Type 1 diabetic than I ever did.
So take care of yourselves, my friends! Your long, healthy futures await you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kate is a disabled former criminal defense attorney living with her husband in Detroit, Michigan. Her memoir, From National Champion to Physically Disabled Activist: My Lifelong Struggles with a Diseased Body, and the Lessons it Has Taught Me Along the Way, is currently being considered by literary agents for representation.
She hopes that the book will empower young men and especially young women, with or without physical disabilities, to strive towards their goals and to view life’s obstacles as opportunities for self-growth, not as barriers.
You can email Kate directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition to her blog, Kate also hosts and produces a podcast entitled: “Hear Me Roar — with Kate Itacy.” You can find the podcast’s website at http://hearmeroarpodcast.com.
- Melanie Copenhaver and Robert P. Hoffman, “Type 1 Diabetes: Where Are We in 2017?,” Translational Pediatrics 6, no. 4 (2017): 359–364.
- “Statistics About Diabetes,” American Diabetes Association, last modified March 22, 2018, http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/statistics/; “Diabetes,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last modified May 3, 2017, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/diabetes.htm.
- “Diabetes, Gum Disease, & Other Dental Problems,” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, last modified September 2014, https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/preventing-problems/gum-disease-dental-problems.
- “Diabetes, Heart Disease, and Stroke,” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, last modified February 2017, https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/preventing-problems/heart-disease-stroke;
- “What Is Diabetic Neuropathy?,” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, last modified February 2018, https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/preventing-problems/nerve-damage-diabetic-neuropathies/what-is-diabetic-neuropathy.
- “Diabetes and Foot Problems,” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, last modified January 2017, https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/preventing-problems/foot-problems.
- “Diabetic Eye Disease,” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, last modified May 2017, https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/preventing-problems/diabetic-eye-disease.
- “Diabetic Kidney Disease,” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, last modified February 2017, https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/preventing-problems/diabetic-kidney-disease.
- “Diabetes, Sexual, & Bladder Problems,” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, last modified June 2018, https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/preventing-problems/sexual-bladder-problems.
- “New CDC report: More than 100 million Americans have diabetes or prediabetes,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last modified July 18, 2017, https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2017/p0718-diabetes-report.html; “Statistics About Diabetes,” American Diabetes Association, last modified March 22, 2018, http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/statistics/.