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Person with diabetesBorn in Sidley, Bexhill-on-Sea in 1925. Diagnosed Type 1 in Sidley, Bexhill-on-Sea in 1930
Overview: Margaret Elliott`s newly-qualified local doctor diagnosed diabetes as soon as he walked through her front door - from the smell of acetone. Her family was poor but managed to pay for some medical care through a thrift club. Her parents did her injections for her and her husband did them after she married at 20. She was advised not to have children, but had 3 normal births and one caesarean. She attributes her good health to her husband`s care and a very strict diet. She has smoked 6 or 7 cigarettes a day since she was 14.
Well, my parents... well, my
mother‘s father had a business. But my father, he come from a very large
family - about twelve or thirteen - and the house, or the cottage, he lived
in backed onto a stream. And he just used to do gardening and that sort of
thing, until he got experience in cars, and then he became a mechanic. And
he worked in the garage, which was at the side of the flat where we lived
in Bexhill. And my mother, she didn‘t go to work - she stayed at home, but
she was... well, what can I say, not a very strong person, both in her mind
and her body, you know. He was the strong man of the family. But I had one
brother, Jack, and he was six years older than me. But we just used to live
a normal village life - you know, go out to play on the green and skipping
and running and all the rest of it, until I developed scarlet fever. That
was the beginning of my downfall, that was. I came out from the isolation
hospital and then was knocked over by a car, and they think the shock of the
two things possibly brought the diabetes onto me. But my brother‘s developed
diabetes in his later years, but he‘s only diabetes two - he‘s not on tablets
or anything, he just has to be careful what he eats. But there was no sign
of it in my family behind me at all, so I suppose it was possibly the shock
that brought it out on me. But yes, I led quite a normal life. Went to school,
and my mother always took sugar lumps to the school to give to the teacher
in case I did become hypo, but I don‘t ever remember doing that at school.
Were you already at school when
you were diagnosed with diabetes?
No, I started school after the
summer term - that would be September, wouldn‘t it? Yeah, around that time.
And, of course, it was only opposite our house at that time, so my mother
could pop in and see how I was every half hour. Then, when I went onto the
other school, the bigger school, I was on my own. Nobody bothered me at school
though. I don‘t think they even knew what diabetes was, you know, because
it wasn‘t all that common then.
What are your memories of being
diagnosed with diabetes?
Ah, well, my mother said I was
trying to drink the washing up water out of her bowl. I know I had this excessive
thirst, and she called our doctor in, which was a local doctor, Dr Dunhill,
from Bexhill-on-Sea. And he opened the front door, and he sniffed and he
said "sugar diabetes" - that was before he‘d seen me even. And
he just came into the room to confirm he could smell the acetone on my breath,
and immediately got me into hospital, which was the Royal
East Sussex Hospital
at Hastings. And, well, I suppose they put me on insulin straight away.
To be quite honest, I don‘t remember that side of it.
This was before the creation
of the National Health Service, so how did you afford a doctor in 1930?
Well, my father used to pay into
a thrifts‘ club; I think it was about threepence a week or sixpence a week,
and so that covered us with doctors and certain medicines.
Did it cover you for your insulin?
No, I had to go to East
Sussex Hospital in Hastings to get that with my mother, once a month.
What are your memories of your time in hospital?
The diet was cheese. I had cheese
every meal and nightmares every night, because I‘m a bit allergic to cheese!
Used to keep the ward awake, so I wasn‘t very popular. But all they were
doing, ‘cause there were no blood sugar tests then, it was just urine tests,
but every hour I had to pass urine so they could test it. And, well, that
was, I suppose, to adjust the insulin, because they had no idea how much to
give me, did they? They had to find out through the tests. But I was in
for about a fortnight, I think, initially.
Can you remember either you or
your mother being taught to do injections?
No, I can‘t remember her being
taught, but she did them well. She must have been shown at some time - possibly
while I was in hospital, you see.
And can you remember how the
urine testing was done?
Yes, my father made me a little
spirit lamp, which he… it was a ink bottle, and he put a wick up through the
cork and filled it with methylated spirit. I had to light this wick to get
the flame, and then I had to use Fehling‘s solution blue and white and just
boil the uri… the test… over the flame and wait and see what colour it was.
If it was blue I was negative, and the more orange it went... oh, green was
all right - that was a trace, but the more orange it became, the more sugar
I had in the system. So, in those cases, I used to be given a small dose
of insulin and something to eat, like bread or something.
Do you know how often per day
you had insulin at first?
Twice a day... well, yes, I say
twice a day, but on the odd occasions, when my tests were exceedingly high,
they had to give me small doses through the day to keep me level, you see.
Do you think that happened quite
Well, it did while I was in hospital,
yes, it did.
And what were hospitals like
in those days, compared with today?
Well, far better, I would say
- they were more caring. And I was moved from the East
Sussex Hospital to the Bexhill
Hospital - we had a cottage hospital there - and I was really well
looked after in there, you know. I think everybody took a pride in what they
were doing, and yes, I must say the food improved, the beds improved,
and even the injections improved, because they were using more sites on me
then: legs, arms, stomach, backs of legs… what do you call it?
The calf of the leg, yeah.
When you say improved, do you
mean that the cottage hospital was better than the Sussex?
I think so, yes, I do think so.
And what were you taught about
Well, I was given a Dr Lawrence‘s
diet book, which was lines: black lines and red lines. Black was carbohydrate,
red was protein, because at that time we had to weigh the protein as well
as the carbohydrate. I can‘t remember quantities or anything, but I know
my father used to use so many new pennies as the weight, and I had the equivalent
in bread. And I lived on watercress! Watercress, lettuce, carrots, celery
- you know, anything that was non-carbohydrate. And from the meat point of
view, yes, I had meat every day - twice a day, I think - and eggs.
Was that difficult, to adjust
to a new diet?
Well, I really can‘t say, because
it‘s a thing that‘s happened automatically to me, you see, as I‘ve got older
and that. But I came off the Lawrence
diet when I was about sixteen, I would say… sixteen, yeah, and I just used
to assess my own food then. But I always weighed my carbohydrate, like the
potatoes and the bread - I still do to this day. No particular reason, it‘s
just a long standing habit, I think.
What sort of scales did you have
Oh, they were just a flat back
part where the weight was, which, of course, we used pennies on, and the scoop
scale, like they would use in a shop to scoop up lentils or everything. That
was the only type that was obtainable, or the only type my parents could afford.
And as I got older, I used the little balance scales, which we used to get
Were you quite hard up as a family?
Well, yes, my father only earned
about three pound ten shillings a week, and that wasn‘t very much, because
our rent was eighteen shillings a week - I do remember that.
So, was it quite hard for him
to afford all these vegetables?
Well, we had an allotment, so
he used to grow as much as he could. He used to grow all the potatoes and
celery - yes, he used to grow celery and radishes, all that kind of thing.
But from the fruit aspect, well, didn‘t often have fruit then, because it
Have you any idea how often you
did have fruit?
Well, always on a Sunday, I remember,
being given an orange or an apple. Otherwise it was milk to drink to use
up the carbohydrate amount that I was allowed, so I never had a lot of vitamin
C. But I kept very well; not a lot of colds.
Have you any memories of how people reacted when you were diagnosed with diabetes?
Well, I think all our friends
and family knew, because Mum had forewarned everybody, including the local
shops not to sell me sweets, because I used to go in and get two pennyworth
of coconut flakes, which were covered in sugar. But being a child, I had
to have something. And, of course, next evening I was full of sugar, and
once or twice I went into a coma because of it and was taken into hospital.
But friends and family, as I say, they all knew, and everybody gave me sugar
lumps, because at that time, that was the thing. Always carried four sugar
lumps with me, but on the way to school we used to pass a field full of horses,
so I used to give them the sugar lumps!
So, then you had no backup if
you had a coma at...
None at all; just what the teacher
had. But no, I don‘t remember having a lot, you know, when I was at school.
I used to walk to school - mile and a half - and walk back in the evening,
because, of course, we had no transport in those days and my parents couldn‘t
afford the bus fares, so I just took it for granted that that was the thing
How did people at school react
to your having diabetes?
Well, the teachers, of course,
they knew, but I don‘t think children had any need to know, because I was
never really ill at school because of that, because of the diabetes.
Did you get any special treatment
from the teachers?
Not at all, no, I was just one
of the crowd. But they would look at me a bit odd at times, and I often wondered
why, but, you see, they tell me nowadays I go ashly pale, white, when I need
sugar, so the same thing might have happened when I was a child. But I don‘t
remember anyone ever giving me any actually at school.
Did you do physical exercise
like all the other children?
No, I was excused from that because
of the diabetes.
So, the other children must have
known that there was something different?
Well, they probably did, but
at that age you don‘t think to... you know, I wouldn‘t have thought to have
told them. As far as I was concerned, I couldn‘t see anything that was wrong
with me, you know. I didn‘t think I was abnormal at all, not in the health
Can you remember at what age
you started doing your own injections?
Yes, I can. I was fourteen and
I done them at my home with my parents
watching me. But not regular - I didn‘t do them regular, because they used
to insist that they done them. I never measured it up myself, because they
always measured it up for me. And then the next time I remember doing them
on my own was on the ship when I was going out to Malta,
when my husband was stationed there.
Well, we‘ll come to Malta
later, but first of all, tell me what you did when you left school.
I worked in a grocer‘s shop.
I worked in a shoe shop at first, but I didn‘t like that, so I went to a grocer‘s
shop and gradually worked up to a provision assistant, which I was able to
bone all the bacon and cut all the cheese etcetera, and then sell it, of course,
over the counter. I did that, really, until I got married.
What were grocer‘s shops like
in those days?
Well, big wooden drawers behind
the counter, and the counters were all wood and they were polished. We had
to weigh the sugar - during the war this was - we had to weigh the sugar and
put into blue bags, and the flour. And any dried food that was obtainable,
that was all weighed and put into bags. But it was a matter of weighing the
food, pricing it and collecting the money, using the till to put the money
in when you‘d sold these items. But they‘re a bit different then to what
they are today, I can tell you, because nobody uses their brain these days.
It‘s all done through calculators, isn‘t it? And the tills themselves tell
you the amount too, the grading on the articles, and what change has to be
given. Well, we used to have to do all that - work it all out; pennies and
ha‘pennies, and farthings, even, in those days.
And what age were you when you
Oh, fourteen, yes.
The Second World War broke out
then when you were fourteen. How were you affected by that?
Well, actually, we were better
off, because when everything was rationed and we all had our ration books,
and I was allowed double rations of cheese, triple rations of meat, double
rations of egg, double rations of milk. And I still had my sweet coupons
in the back of the book, so anybody that wanted Mars bars used to use my coupons
to get them. But no, actually, we were better off, from the aspect of the
amount of food that came into the house, because of me.
So, did other members of the
family eat your food?
Well, I ‘m sure they must have
done, yes. If a meal was cooked, mine was in with it, wasn‘t it? Yes, they
must have, because there was only actually my mother and father there, ‘cause
my brother joined the army when he was quite young, so he wasn‘t there.
What did you do after you stopped
working in the grocery?
I think I continued working in
the grocery till I was about twenty. Two different stores, I worked in -
the Co-op and a private store - and then I got married when I was twenty.
Well, I did take on this little
part-time job in a house in Bexhill, and I was polishing the floor and this
big commando came upstairs with his green beret on, and, of course, stood
there talking to me. Well, from then we hit it off together. And that was
how I met him. And we had dates and carried on till we got married in ‘45.
Where would you have gone on
dates in those days?
Well, cinemas. Of course, living
by the coast, there was always seats and that along the seafront to sit on,
but mainly cinemas, or… well, with my parents, of course, and anywhere we
could find a seat to sit on.
Tell me about your wedding in
Well, it was only a registry
office wedding, because there wasn‘t much availability in clothes. We had
to have coupons for clothes. My husband always says we got married in the
right place - in Battle in Sussex, and we‘ve been at battle ever since!
How did your husband cope with
you having diabetes?
Well, I don‘t think he knew anything
about it at the time, and most of the time he was away in the services, you
see - he was a Royal Marine Commando. And we didn‘t have a lot of contact
until, as I say, I went out to Malta
and stayed out there for three years with him, because he was stationed there.
And took Linda with me - she was about two and a half, I think. We sailed
over on the Arundel Castle,
which was very nice, and then our eldest son, Neil, was born while we were
in Malta. And then
he used to wonder why I was getting a bit floppy - you know, I‘d sort of fall
into a chair and things. "What‘s wrong?"; I used to say "well,
I need sugar" - that was all I could say. So, I would either get a very
sweet drink, which was difficult for me to swallow, or sugar lumps or a bar
of chocolate, because he had no idea of quantities - he just used to give
it to me. And eventually, of course, the hypo would pass, and then we talked
about it, that these things did happen to diabetics and that, you see. And
so then, he learnt how to do... well, I had to teach him how to do my injection,
and he‘s done them ever since, even to today, except for when I‘ve been in
hospital or something
Now, we‘ve really skipped over
the birth of your two children. Were you worried about having a baby with
Well, yes, I was, because my
own doctor in Bexhill, he told me that diabetics shouldn‘t have children.
Well, I‘ve proved him wrong, because I‘ve had four! And anyway, Linda was
born - this is the eldest daughter - she was born in Hastings, while I was living in Bexhill. And then, as I say, I went
to Malta. Neil was
born there in Mtarfa, and then, when we came back to England,
we moved to Gravesend in Kent.
Yes, our third son - well, our third child - was born in Gravesend; I had
him in Gravesend Hospital. I was taken in in a coma,
and they didn‘t quite know what to do with me. But, of course, my husband
came in with me, and our doctor that we had there, Dr Dismore, he wouldn‘t
give me any glucose or anything before I went into hospital, so they had to
get me out the coma with glucose injections. And then I gave birth soon after
Why wouldn‘t the doctor give
you any glucose?
Well, I don‘t know - they were
strange people. They didn‘t understand diabetes, especially local practitioners,
What year was this third birth?
This was the third one? 1950,
he was born. They were born ‘45, ‘48, ‘50, and then our last child was born
in Guy‘s Hospital in London by caesarean,
because they did understand diabetes, and he was born in ‘52.
But the first three were not
born by caesarean?
No, they were normal birth.
Were they big babies?
Well, Linda was seven-seven,
Neil was eight pound, Glen was - he was small - six pound six ounces, and
Colin was seven pound two ounces, so none of them were excessively big, were
Now, you say that at the time
of the birth of your third child in 1950, the doctors really didn‘t know much
about diabetes. Had that been your experience right up until that time?
Yes, and beyond! Wasn‘t so bad
when we moved away from Gravesend, you know, but apart
from... yes, when I had Colin in Guy‘s Hospital, they knew what to look for,
you know. They were understanding, completely understanding - I had no problems
in there. I didn‘t in Malta
when I had Neil, nor Linda - no, I had no problems then - it‘s just the third
one. I don‘t suppose it was his fault, but I was definitely in a coma needing
the glucose. I‘ve been in other comas when I‘ve had excess sugar. I‘ve been
dosed up with insulin into the vein to get me out of those. Yes, that‘s a
point… before Neil was born in Malta - that‘s right - they gave me,
I think he said, from what I can remember, he was going to give me eighty
units of insulin, because my blood sugar was so high. And I was trying, pleading
with them not to, because I knew I would go into a coma, which, of course,
I did, just before he was born, actually when I was in labour. So, that was
the reverse, then - they were pumping glucose into me. My arms were black
and blue where they‘d been injecting into the veins.
So, for one birth they refused
you glucose and another birth they insisted on giving you glucose. Did you
actually argue with them and explain why you disagreed with them?
Yes, I did. They were giving
me insulin to get me out of the sugar coma, because I‘d gone into a sugar
coma. They were giving me eighty units of insulin. Well, the most I had
all day was twenty units then, so I knew what was going to happen. And so,
of course, they ended up injecting me glucose into the veins to get me out
of the coma, so that was rather a trying time. I had a healthy son - it didn‘t
do him any harm.
Did you encounter any good doctors
or nurses, say until the 1950s?
Well, it‘s difficult to say,
really. I‘ve been in so many hospitals for so many different things that...
yes, I think Guy‘s Hospital was terrific. What else can I say? Gravesend
wasn‘t much good at all. Hastings was very good, where I had Linda. And,
you see, the English staff - they were military nurses and doctors that we
had in Malta - yes, they were very good, but this one
doctor, he just didn‘t understand diabetes, I don‘t think; the consultant
I was under.
How did you get on with General
Well, they‘re rubbish in my opinion,
most of what I‘ve come in contact with. They are, really.
What do you mean?
Well, if I go to them with a
query, with the exception of the doctor I‘ve got here now - he is very good
- if I went to them with a query, you know, "I‘ve been having too many
high blood sugars", "oh, put your insulin up", "well,
by how much?" I‘m saying, "oh, four to six units". Well, I
might like to point out that I have, in the whole of the day, I only have
ten units. I have
two units of soluble and eight units of... no, sorry - Actrapid, and eight
units of Insulatard, which takes me right through the night, right through
to the next morning. And yet they will insist that I put it up
Have there been any other occasions
when your husband knew better than the doctors?
Yes, several, because when I
was in Grove Park
Hospital, because I contracted tuberculosis, he kept
saying to the doctor that I needed glucose. He could tell I needed glucose,
and the doctor said "no, no - it‘s just the tablets she‘s on", because
I was on tablets for the TB. And he said "no", he said "she
needs glucose". Well, about half an hour after he‘d gone, they realised
that I was nearly falling out of bed - I couldn‘t control my actions - so
they soon gave me glucose then, to get me out. But several times when I‘ve
been in hospital, he‘s said that he could see I was coming up towards a coma,
needing glucose - a hypo coma - but they all thought they knew better, so
I just had to wait there, bide my time, till they realised. But I never went
to hospital without… I took a packet of biscuits and a jar of glucose, and
I had to be prepared because they knew so little about it.
Can you remember what year it
was when you had TB?
Oh yes. I think I had tuberculosis
before Colin was born, because I had this terrible cough and pain at the back
of my chest, which I told the doctor about. He pooh-poohed it. So, eventually
I was coughing up blood. I went to see the doctor about that, so he sent
me straight to Gravesend Hospital
for an x-ray, which I had to bring back to him wet. And he read it there,
and he said "oh yes, yes - you have got trouble with your chest".
They took me into a sanatorium. I‘ll have to think now - which one was the
first one? Well, I definitely had tuberculosis before Colin was born, and
it was 1948 he was born, but it was 1950... no, he wasn‘t, sorry - he was
born ‘52. It was ‘50 I started all this coughing business, so I must have
carried him with the tuberculosis. And ‘52, after he was born - he was about
six months old, I think - I started coughing up blood, so I saw the doctor
and, as I say, I had these x-rays and that done, and then they sent me to
It was Ashford sanatorium I was in, and my husband‘s a very strong man, a
very strong-willed man, and he wasn‘t happy about the treatment I was getting
there. They was injecting so many thousand litres of air into my diaphragm
to push the lung up, ‘cause I found afterwards I had a hole the size of half
a crown in the bottom lobe of my right lung. And I had to go and have these
- I can‘t remember what they called it - but this air injected into my diaphragm.
About once a fortnight that was done, to try and push the lung up together.
And the food I was getting in there was… well, it was more cabbage than anything
- plates and plates of cabbage, because they too didn‘t understand diabetes;
they didn‘t know how to feed me. And in the end, he decided he was going
to take me home, which he did. He come and got me by train, and I stayed
at home for a few weeks, and then, of course, I was really ill after that,
and I had to go back to the doctor and was taken to Grove
Park Hospital in London.
That was where they eventually operated on me and took the lower lobe away.
And that was where I had the trouble trying to make the doctor understand,
or my husband did, that I needed glucose. I was in there, I suppose, getting
on for two months, because they had to get me on me feet after the operation,
and then I returned home. But all the children were put into care homes,
because my husband had to work then - he was working at the BP refinery in
Kent. He was a shift
worker, and in between visiting the children and visiting me, he didn‘t have
much time indoors, and he didn‘t have time to eat, even; he was losing weight.
And we had to pay for all the children that were away in these nursing homes
- well, children‘s homes. None of them were together - they were all in different
places, so that was very upsetting for us.
What are your children‘s memories
of that time?
Well, fortunately they don‘t
seem to remember a lot about it, because they were reasonably young, weren‘t
they? Two - Colin was two when he came home. Glen… well, Glen and Neil and
Linda went up to my husband‘s mother in Newcastle. They stayed up there with her as long
as she was able to keep them there, and then, of course, they had to come
back and go into these homes which I‘m telling you about. And they were all
in different ones, which was very difficult for him. One was in Orpington,
one was in Faversham in Kent, I can‘t remember... one was in Tunbridge
Wells, so he had a heck of a life… and I was in Orpington.
How long did this life go on
Well, two years at least; must
have been two years. Colin was just over two when he came back, because the
others were going to school where they were in these homes, ‘cause they were
Well, finally, I suppose, after
about five years, because when my husband was working, the Queen and the Duke
of Edinburgh were opening a new jetty down there where he worked. But nearly
everybody in the village went, but I wasn‘t allowed to - too much excitement,
I suppose. So, that was ‘54 that she came there, so I suppose it must have
about ‘55 before I was really strong enough to look after the children. I
had to have a home-help come in to the house while I was bad, before I, you
know, was really cured, and because Bill did what he could, but there‘s a
limit to what men can do.
How did you cope with the children
and with diabetes after that?
Oh, very well, really. They
knew if Mum wasn‘t well, what they had to do. They used to have to give me
a very sweet drink, like... well, we never had Lucozade in those days, we
couldn‘t afford it - but a glass of squash with a bit of sugar put in it to
sweeten it even more, sweet biscuits - oh, I lived well through my children;
they used to look after me when I was hypo. Even the neighbours knew - everybody
knew how they had to deal with me.
Could your children read the
Well, Linda might have done -
the older one - yes, ‘cause she used to say to me – ah, that‘s it - "Mum,
you‘re talking funny", because I used to slur when I needed sugar. "Mum,
you‘re talking funny - get something to eat", and she‘s still the same
today and she‘s fifty seven. She still says "Mum, you need some sugar"!
What about your husband - was
he good at reading the signs?
Oh, yes, most definitely - even
to today. He‘s not quite so good today, because naturally we‘re that much
older. But for a long time I didn‘t get any signs of hypos at all - no recognition
at all. I just used to either collapse on the bed, fall on the floor, and
I used to argue that there was nothing wrong with me, that I didn‘t need sugar;
I used to reject it completely. And I fought with my husband. He‘s had to
sit on my chest to get glucose into me during the night, and then, of course,
I‘d vomit it back, so we‘d start again - more sugar. But there were several
occasions when he‘s had to get the doctor in to me, to inject glucose into
me to get me out of these comas. But nowadays, I‘ve got all the symptoms
back: tingling in the legs, eyes funny, and, well, I quite often lose the
use of my legs if I‘m walking far, so I know how to deal with myself nowadays.
But I was told by one of the diabetic nurses, during my course somewhere -
I can‘t remember where - but she said "your symptoms will come back again",
and sure enough they have, because for years, I never knew until someone was
feeding something to me.
For how many years do you think
you didn‘t know the symptoms?
Oh, well, I‘d say five years
or more. Must be five years or more, or more than that - ten years.
Were you worried when the children
were small about having a hypo?
Yes, I was. This is why I warned
all my neighbours what might happen, so that they could at least cope with
them, you know, if I was on my back, flat on my back, because I never knew.
If I didn‘t get the symptoms, I didn‘t know what was happening, you see, until
it was too late, really. But they seemed to cope. They knew, I think, within
a little, as I say. So, I managed all right.
What do you think it‘s been like for your husband to have a wife with diabetes?
Pretty terrible, I should think
- especially me being the patient. And when I‘ve got these... I have a fifty
year medal from the Joslin Foundation in Boston,
Massachusetts, and the sixty year from the diabetic people
here, I think it‘s my husband that should be having them, not me, because
he deserves them more than I do. I‘ve just had to live with it, but he‘s
had to live with me, and deal with me when I‘ve needed to be dealt with from
the glucose point of view, and, like I say, he‘s done all my injections for
me. And fortunately I‘m not on a lot of insulin now, but I‘ve had cataracts
off, so I have difficulty in seeing the insulin in the syringe, so he does
all that for me.
When did you begin to develop
complications with diabetes?
Well, I don‘t think I‘ve got
complications. I had pernicious anaemia start in 1979, I had the cataracts
off at ‘80 and the other one off at ‘84, but… oh, and I also got underactive
thyroid, much the same time as the pernicious anaemia. And I was attending
King‘s College Hospital in London as an outpatient in the diabetic clinic,
and it was Dr Watson there that told me, because I‘d got these two things
and the diabetes, which was a triangle, I had no further complications, which,
fortunately, I haven‘t had, up to now.
What do you mean about this triangle?
Well, I developed pernicious
anaemia, which means I have to have a B12 injection once every two months,
because I can‘t digest iron, and they have to put this in to give me the iron
that‘s necessary. And underactive thyroid, which I have to take a thyroxine
tablet for once a day. And, as I say, Dr Watson in King‘s College told me
that the triangle - being diabetes, pernicious anaemia and underactive thyroid
- prevented me getting further complications, such as with my feet, kidneys...
well, whatever else comes with diabetes.
Oh, I have got blood pressure,
yes, I have got blood pressure, but that‘s recent - that‘s since we moved
to Morecambe last year. Yeah, I have a Ramipril tablet for blood pressure
and my Thyroxine every morning.
How do you find life taking all
Well, it‘s only two a day - I
can cope. After all these years of injections, taking tablets is a pleasure!
Yes, there‘s no problem there.
You seem to have a fairly low opinion of the medical profession in the first
half of your life. Has that opinion changed?
Well, it has since we moved up
here, because I‘ve got a very good diabetic doctor here: Dr Routledge. He
gives me thorough examinations for neuropathy and blood pressure. Whenever
I see him, he does these tests on me. And I just go to the surgery for my
diabetes - I don‘t attend a hospital here at all. But he‘s a very good doctor,
and the very original one I had, Dr Dunhill, who discovered I was diabetes,
yes, he was very good. He was a young man, just finished his teaching at
Guy‘s Hospital, so everything was fresh in his mind. But in between times,
they just say "oh, well, put your insulin up if necessary, put it down
if you‘re too low - if your blood sugar is too low". But they don‘t
seem to have any idea, the average doctor, you know, in the local surgeries.
What about diabetic clinics at
hospitals. Have you attended those much?
Well, yes, I did. I used to
go to St Bart‘s Hospital in Rochester, and yes, the nurses were... well, I wouldn‘t
say above average - they just about coped, you know. Because if… they‘d say
to me when I arrived "oh, your blood sugar‘s a bit low, you‘d better
have a glass of milk", fair enough. But another time I would go, and
I knew I was hypo, so I was trying to cope while they done the blood test
on me, and then fill myself up with sugar afterwards. But they wouldn‘t ever
recognise the fact that I was going hypo. In fact, one clinic I went to,
one particular clinic - it was a diabetic, but I can‘t remember for what reason,
specific reason - I even fell off the chair in the clinic. And after they‘d
given me glucose, I had to come home by bus. They never offered me an ambulance.
But I was shopping in Chatham - this is all in the Kent
area I‘m speaking of now - in the shop in Chatham,
and I don‘t know what happened. The next thing I know, there was an ambulance
man there saying to me "you‘re a diabetic, you need sugar", so he
gave me glucose in my mouth, you know, in water in my mouth. And then they
took me to St Bart‘s Hospital in Rochester,
and they kept me there for abut two or three hours, didn‘t inform my husband,
who was at home, and I wasn‘t in the state to ask them to do anything. And
they did bring me home by an ambulance that time.
It sounds as though your life
has been quite crisis-ridden.
Well, I suppose it has to other
people, but, do you know, you just take it in your stride. I just accept
the fact that I‘m a diabetic and I‘m liable to go hypo, or the other way -
hyper, so I just live with it. And I suppose if anybody‘s had it as long
as I, they‘ll tell you the same thing, because you know it ain‘t nothing else.
How much would you say diabetes
had affected your life?
Well, none actually, ‘cause I‘ve
married a good man - met and married a good man - I‘ve got four nice children,
two of which live abroad now: one in New Zealand and one in Florida. And the one in Florida
has developed diabetes - he‘s on insulin, and my daughter, Linda, she‘s a
type two diabetic: she‘s on tablets and diet. But the other two, no symptoms
at all; they lead a perfectly normal life – well, they all do, but they‘re
the only two that have any sign of diabetes.
Do you think your life would
have been different in any way if you hadn‘t had diabetes?
No, I don‘t. Yes, there‘s one
thing I wanted to be was a nurse, when I was very young, but, of course, they
wouldn‘t accept me, being diabetic. These days, doctors and nurses are diabetic,
so I understand. So, I couldn‘t do what I wanted. That‘s one thing I was
very interested in - medical things, I suppose because of my own self.
Well, now, we‘ve just had a tea break, and your husband mentioned that you
went to a diabetic clinic at King‘s College
Hospital for quite a while. Can you tell me about
Right, yes, I had to go somewhere
different because the local doctor had put me on insulins which were just
causing comas all the time. And they said that the two insulins that I was
given should never have been mixed. Well, of course, we didn‘t realise this,
you see. So, they took a long while, but they sorted me out - got me onto
different insulin; onto a pork insulin.
Can you remember what the two
insulins were that shouldn‘t have been mixed?
No, I can‘t. I can‘t remember
the name of the two; it was too long ago. No, sorry, I‘ve got no memory of
that at all. But they put me onto pork Actrapid and pork Insulatard, which
I‘m still on. But the nurse in our local community, where we lived, tried
me on the Lantus - the human insulin - and my tests were rushing up to thirty
and over, so I wasn‘t able to absorb it. So, they took me off of that straight
away and put me back on to Actrapid and Insulatard. For some reason, I have
been warned not to use these human insulins, possibly because my body‘s just
used to the animal type. I can‘t accept it for some reason. But this wasn‘t
human that the doctors had put me on - the two that shouldn‘t have been mixed
- according to Dr Lawrence, he was disgusted… Dr Watson, sorry - he was disgusted
that they‘d put me on it. It took them quite a while to get me back to normal
on an even flow, and they did look after me very well up there. But, of course,
we had to go up by car. And it wasn‘t a very good area of London where the hospital was, and we were always
very worried that the car wouldn‘t be there when we came out, ‘cause we‘d
seen so many with the wheels off, the tyres off and everything. But I went
there, I suppose, seventies, late seventies, eighties... no, it wouldn‘t have
been - it would have been ‘80, ‘80 into ‘90. And since then, I must admit,
I have kept a lot better.
What are your memories of going
to the clinic at King‘s College Hospital?
Well, at that time we were allowed
to smoke in the waiting room - everybody was allowed to smoke in the waiting
room – and, of course, I did smoke. And when I used to get a bit annoyed
about not being called on time, I used to light a cigarette, and you could
guarantee you‘d be called then!
How long did you smoke for?
I still do, from when I was fourteen.
How many do you smoke a day?
About six or seven. Because,
as a youngster - say fourteen, fifteen - when I used to go out with my friends,
maybe we‘d go to the pictures, they used to be eating chocolates and ice lollies
and all the rest of it, and I could never have it, you see. So, I said to
my father "what can I take to the pictures with me, Dad?". He said
"just have a cigarette". Of course, that started me off. I have
had to break… intervals when… naturally when I got tuberculosis and when I
was expecting the babies, but yeah, I still smoke, and I enjoy a cigarette.
So, I mean, I must be proof that it doesn‘t do anyone any harm. I don‘t believe
all these stories about you shouldn‘t smoke, personally, because during the
war, I never saw a person that didn‘t smoke. It was the only thing that kept
them going, especially the servicemen, you know, with all the trials and errors
we had, with bombs landing on the doorstep. And another thing I‘ve just thought
of: I was walking to work during the war – now, I can‘t remember when particularly
- but I was machine-gunned by a German plane that was coming across towards
me, and I just happened to be in his path. So, I jumped the hedge into the
playground - somebody‘s playground there - and that was a bit terrifying,
I might add. But, however, I survived it.
Where were you living at the
You mentioned being allowed to smoke in the waiting room. Can you talk about
your memories of hospital waiting rooms over the years?
Well, in particular, King‘s College
was a huge room, and it didn‘t matter what was wrong with anybody, we all
sat close together, you know. And, well, waiting time wasn‘t too bad in that
case, but the local hospitals were a lot worse. In some cases they put up
a board saying "the waiting time to visit the doctor is expected to be...",
could be one to two hours, and some didn‘t put any time on, so you had no
idea, but... Well, I have waited, I must say, two to three hours. I always
go prepared. I take a sandwich with me and a drink, because the minute you
get up from your seat to go somewhere to get a sandwich, you‘ll be called.
But, as I say, here, I have no dealings with the hospital. We have a local
clinic here - Queen Victoria - well,
it‘s called Queen Victoria
Hospital - but that‘s where I go to see the chiropodist.
Otherwise, I just deal with the doctor in the surgery, and, as I say, he‘s
a very good man; very pleased with him.
Now you‘ve mentioned the chiropodist.
What‘s the state of your feet?
Well, excellent, according to
her. I‘ve not got any corns, bunions or nothing. Nothing at all - not even
hard skin, so I suppose I‘ve been lucky there. But mind, I‘ve always looked
after my feet. I wash ‘em every day with soapy water, so I have always looked
after them, and I‘ve always gone to a chiropodist. Fortunately it‘s free.
You mentioned earlier that you
got a Joslin medal for fifty years, so that must have been 1980. How did
that come about?
Well, my local doctor at the
surgery where I went then, Dr Ruggles, he realised it was fifty years I‘d
been diabetic, and he asked me did I know the name of the doctor that diagnosed
me. Well, yes I did, and I told him, and fortunately he was still alive,
so he was able to contact him. And he sent a letter verifying the fact that
he‘d diagnosed me as diabetic in - I can‘t think of the year now… he diagnosed
me in 1930, so he wrote a letter. And my doctor contacted this Joslin Foundation
in Boston, Massachusetts, and they sent this - it‘s a copper medal; it‘s a huge
thing, in a case. That‘s how I came by that one. And the fifty year old,
fifty year medal, I got again through my diabetic nurse in Hoo, and when I‘d
had diabetes for sixty years, she said “you should get another medal”. So,
she applied to Diabetes UK,
and they sent me another fifty year medal, because they hadn‘t made any sixty
year medals. But now I‘m waiting for the seventy year medal, which I believe
I get next year. So that‘s it - actually, I‘ve got three, but it should have
been a different type - a sixty year old - but they didn‘t make any.
nearly seventy five years experience of diabetes now, what advice would you
give to somebody being newly diagnosed?
Well, to accept the fact, because
you can‘t escape it. But I‘ve always been very, very careful with my food.
I still, to today, weigh my bread. My potatoes, I know - three egg sized
potatoes - but I still weigh my bread, and I do not eat the likes of cakes,
biscuits, ice-cream, anything like that. I keep a balanced diet, and I think
that has got a lot to do with it. Because these days, they seem to suggest
that people are able to eat anything, but how many people are going to live
to seventy five years of diabetes if they eat all these sweet things? They
must get some complications through it; it‘s pretty obvious, even to me.
And I think wrong advice is given to people, because nurse and doctors just
can‘t be bothered. Instead of sitting down and explaining what might happen
through eating the wrong sorts of things, they just tell you - which has been
told to me by dietitians - "you can eat anything you like". Well,
to me, that‘s completely wrong. Maybe I‘m wrong - I wouldn‘t like to say,
but you‘re not going to tell me that a person on insulin who has to watch
their blood sugars - which I do twice a day, by the way - and can sit down
and eat a slice of gateaux or whatever without it having some reaction. The
thing, of course, is with this newer insulin and the insulin pumps, people
are inclined to just shoot more insulin into their selves. Well, I‘d just
like to add this. I‘ve got a daughter-in-law, who lives in New Zealand, and she was diagnosed about twenty
five years ago, and she‘s on these insulin pumps. Well, she‘s a very hardworking
girl, and she goes out to work, she looks after her husband and two children.
And her husband, Colin, was saying to me the other night on the phone that
he‘d had to have the St John‘s Ambulance into her again, because she finds her blood sugars
a bit in between, neither low nor high - where it should be in actual fact.
But because June‘s going to eat a meal afterwards, she gives herself about
eight units of the long acting insulin at
all through the night, which, of course, she isn‘t, then she gets these bad
hypos. It‘s not readable on the meter even - it‘s below zero. And he has
to get the Red Cross people in to give her glucagon - two injections of glucagon
usually, and then she goes onto sweet food after that. But that‘s just one
example, because June will eat anything that‘s put in front of her. "Oh,
a little bit of that won‘t hurt" sort of attitude, you know. But I wonder
if she‘ll be as healthy as I am in fifty years time. These are the things
I‘m trying to point out to people. I mean, I‘m no medical expert. I can
only go by my own experience, but I think the wrong advice is given to diabetics,
especially those on insulin.
From your seventy years of encounters
- over seventy years of encounters - with doctors and nurses, what advice
would you like to give to student doctors and nurses who may listen to this
Well, as I say just previously,
that people should be told to eat certain things, you know. I mean, I‘m on
a gram diet. I should have a hundred and eighty grams per day, and I maintain
that, whereas if you sit and eat a slice of cake, that‘s over two hundred
grams for a start. It‘s got to do something to your body, so my advice is
to anybody that‘s teaching, or new to insulin, diabetes, to be very careful
what they eat.
And would you have any advice
to doctors or nurses about the attitude they should adopt to patients?
Well, yes, in my circumstances
I‘ve met very funny attitudes: people that laugh at you, doctors or nurses
that laugh at you, because you, you know, you‘re telling them your experience,
something that‘s happened to you, and they laugh. And then again, I‘ve been
told by dietitians "it‘s a waste of time coming to see me, because you
know more about it than I do", so… But that‘s the wrong attitude. They
should learn it all and advise people, shouldn‘t they? This is what I think.
Teach them not to eat these very sweet things
Can you summarise some of the technical changes you‘ve seen in blood testing
and in using insulin?
Well, of course, when I was first
diagnosed, and for a great many years afterwards, we had the glass syringes
and the needles, separate needles, which had to be boiled after each use,
dried, and then it was always urine that was tested, never blood. But, as
I say, when I went to King‘s College
Hospital, they put me straight onto blood testing, the strips, which
are so much easier. Just takes a few seconds against about ten minutes.
And you can‘t boil pots of urine if you‘re travelling and that, which, of
course, I have done in my life, but you can take a blood test in a car. Just
a little prick of the finger, and it‘s so much easier. And, of course, the
syringes that we‘ve got these days with the needle attached, one-use only,
they‘re easily disposed of, if you get a sharps container. So, yes, it‘s
altered very, very much in my lifetime. And it‘s tolerable now, where at
first, being only a child, I was naturally looked after by my parents. But
I have gone… I‘ve been abroad. I‘ve been to Australia
- both my husband and I have been to Australia in 1976, but there‘s just one snag with
that. Even the doctors at King‘s College wouldn‘t advise him on my doses
of insulin, so he had to sit down and work it all out, changing the hours,
because there‘s a eight to ten hours difference travelling to Australia, and
he had to adjust all my insulin and all my food on the way. Well, we travelled
by Qantas Airline, and we told them I was diabetic and on a diet, and they
were very, very good. They gave me my meals the same time as I would be having
them in England, gradually broke me into the Australian
time, and the same coming back. They were very, very helpful; I‘ve got to
say that for them. But we got no advice on what to do. If I hadn‘t got a
husband like I had, I don‘t think I would have dared gone, because while I
was over there, change of food and everything, I was very high blood sugars
all the time, but I never went comatose, so I suppose it wasn‘t that bad.
But we stayed there for about six weeks with our son, daughter-in-law
their new child, as he was then, in South
Australia. It was very nice, but I was glad to come back to England.
And what would you say keeps
Well, you know the old saying
- it‘s being so cheerful that keeps you going. It‘s a matter of... it‘s the
routine, which I have to have. I eat my food at a certain time. I know I
might sound a bit boring to some people, but I do. I make sure I have my
injection, do my test, have my injection in the morning, and then have my
food about quarter of an hour afterwards. And then mid-morning, I have biscuits
and coffee - just Rich Tea biscuits: two. And lunch at
And do you have much exercise?
Well, I do as much as I can.
I mean, this is quite a large flat that we‘re living in, and I always say
to my husband, I feel I‘ve walked the promenade when I‘ve been to and fro
here a few times during the day. I know it‘s important to have outside exercise,
and we go to the shops and that most days, so yes, I do have exercise, but
I‘m not a great walker; never have been.
So, do you enjoy your life now?
Oh yes, I do. It‘s a very nice
place to live, Morecambe. There‘s beautiful views from the promenade. We
see right across to the Lake District, all the hills,
and we can see the Pennines, and we have the bay, of
course, which is always full of birds. Oh, it‘s really a lovely place to
live, so we do enjoy life, both Bill and I.