Insulin is Not a Cure: Part One 

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Over the next four days, The L's resident diabetic Henry Stewart explains how taking insulin is almost as bad as taking no medicine at all.

It's while lifting a forkful of potatoes to my mouth that I realize something isn't right—that I'm anxious, too warm, dizzy, slightly nauseous. I keep eating, then can't, and swing my legs out from under the table, sitting on the edge of the bench with my chest kissing my knees. "I just don't feel good," I tell my girlfriend, Jessica, and it's hard to be more specific. I manage to finish dinner, every last nugget of roasted potato, but the sickness doesn't wane. I decide I'm thirsty, but I'm not—not really. Water's not going to help. But I get up anyway, turn into the kitchen and fill a cup to the top.

"I think I'm going to lay down," I tell Jessica, and drag my feet down the hallway, staggering like a drunk. My field of vision slowly soaks up a beige blankness, like how the glucose monitor's testing strips absorb my blood, and I try to move more quickly. By the time I make it to the bedroom, I'm blind: nothing registers in my eyes but what looks like a grid of white Christmas-light bulbs. It feels like my brain is made of lead and my body is not strong enough to hold it up. I stand next to the bedside dresser, or where I think the dresser should be, and wave the glass of water forward, hoping it'll land on top, but it just keeps slicing through empty air. "Give me the glass," Jessica, who has been following me, says. She takes it and we prevent one spill but not another: I drop to my knees, landing at the edge of the bed. My cheek sinks into the blankets and my vision slowly returns. "I'm OK," I tell her.

This is my life with insulin.

****

Insulin, normally produced in the pancreas, is a hormone that allows the body's cells to metabolize carbohydrates into energy. People with diabetes, like me, don't make it because their immune systems have destroyed the region of the pancreas responsible for its production; food passes through their bodies without ever being properly broken down. A diabetic could eat a supermarket aisle's worth of food and still die, essentially, of starvation.

And, for thousands of years, that's exactly what happened to them. The disease was recognized as far back as Ancient Greece; in the first century C.E., a physician described the disease as "a melting down of the flesh and limbs into urine," because of the frequent urination and weight loss it induces. Untreated diabetics—and, for thousands of years, there was no treatment—slowly wither away until they pass into coma and die. At the start of 2009, when my body stopped producing insulin, I weighed 185 pounds. By September, I was down to 125.

In the early 20th Century, the best therapy for diabetics was a strict "starvation diet" that could keep them alive, just barely, for months, maybe years—as long as some other illness didn't get them first—though many found it impossible to bear the persistent hunger; they would break their fewer-than-1000-calories, thrice-boiled-vegetables diets and die. Then, in the early 1920s, several researchers working at the University of Toronto were able to isolate insulin from bovine pancreases and produce a non-toxic, injectable version for humans. They won a Nobel Prize for their efforts, and by 1923 it was available commercially in North America.

The public perceived the discovery of insulin as a bona fide miracle: skeletal persons clinging to comatose lives were not only revived but restored to full health. Medicine had never before brought people back from the brink of death so completely, so startlingly. The discovery of penicillin, even, was still several years away.

But insulin is not a cure.


Part Two, in which Henry explains how insulin can be deadly—using more examples from his personal life!—appeared the following day.

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