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Person with diabetesBorn in St. Kitts in 1931. Diagnosed Type 2 in Birmingham in 1964
Overview: George Saunders was brought up in St.Kitts, worked for his father as a tailor, and came to England in 1958. Since recording this interview, he has received a lot of publicity, because his Birmingham workshop, where he worked as a tailor for nearly 30 years, has become part of a National Trust museum. After he was diagnosed, he was on tablets for about a year before changing to insulin. He is full of praise for medical staff, even though he ignores their advice when he thinks he knows best. He feels that his diabetes has caused him few problems.
(1)I was born in St Kitts in 1931.† My family background was medium class.†
My father was a tailor, my mother was a seamstress, and together they got
married, and of course I came along and I grew up in the normal way.
What kind of house did you live in?
The house that I live in was a two up, two down type of
house.† We had a bathroom, we had showers, and a veranda on the outside, and
benches and seats that you could sit on and enjoy the good weather.† So it
was more of a relaxed attitude in my family background.
How many people were there living in the house?
There were four of us, Dad, Mum, a sister and a brother.
So four in addition to you?
And what kind of schooling did you have?
I had a secondary education on the island.† All educational
standard was based on the British way of life.† We were taught English, and
we were also taught a lot about England and the various countries that surrounded
(2) I was at school for twelve years.† My education was fairly basic and
the teachers were very strict.† You had to come to school on time, and where
lessons are concerned they were very, very strict, to make sure that you absorbed
what you were being taught and that you were able to present yourself as a
good citizen when you grew up.
What did you do outside school?
I didn‘t do quite a lot of playing, because my father, being
a tailor, he wanted me to follow in his footsteps, hence I didn‘t have the
time to play cricket, football, basketball, many of the games that the boys
and girls were playing.† I had to be home in time for my father because he
wanted me to learn the trade, as I said, and follow in his footsteps.
Would you say then that you didn‘t have much exercise as
I wouldn‘t say that I didn‘t have much exercise, because
in the mornings when you get up, in most cases you always have something to
do in the house or outside, like looking after the garden or probably go and
fetch things here and there.† We were living about five miles away from school,
and hence you have to get up in the morning, do your chores, and then run
off to school and be there on time.† If not, the teachers were very annoyed,
and you‘ll be put one side if youíre late and you have to tell the teacher
why you‘re late, and if your excuse is not a good one you get lashes for it.
So you walked five miles to school?
Yes, I did walk five miles to school and back after school.
What kind of diet did you have in St Kitts?
Our diet was basic.† We had rice, cornmeal, flour for making
bread, and bananas, apples, pears,
(3) sugar cane, peanuts, oranges, guavas, papaya, many different fruits.
What part did sugar cane play in your childhood?
Oh that was a joy.† As a kid we have great big sugar cane
fields, and we would go into the middle of the field at times and we would
break the cane, our teeth were very strong at that time, and we would juice
the cane and eat it, and when we come back out we probably wouldn‘t want our
dinner because we all filled up already.† So sometimes our parents would be
mad at us for going into the fields and eating the sugar cane and not partaking
of our dinners.
Do you know of any diabetes in your family?
There is only one person in my family that has diabetes,
or had diabetes, and that is my Mum.† She got diabetes, I think it was even
after I did.† I one of the first ones in the family to have had diabetes,
and shortly after, I think, my Mother, she too caught it.
Can you talk about when and why you came to England?
I came to England in 1958.† I came to gather experience
as most of my friends were doing in the early years. I came, as I said, from
medium class family background, so coming to England
was only to widen my experience and to probably share with the rest of my
friends the experience that they have had.
Did any of your family come with you?
No, none of my family came with me to England.† I got married
in 1956, and my first son was six months when I left and came over in ‘58,
and soon after, in 1959, I sent for both my wife and my son.
(4) Can you talk about what you did after you arrived here?
When I arrived in England it was in April.† Such as this, the weather
was very cold and I felt my body shivering.† I said to myself "why did
I leave my warm country to come here?", but as I was here I was determined
to stick with it and make my life be a better one, rather than probably going
back and not really experiencing what I came for.
So what did you do?
My first job, as you know I am a tailor.† I tried to get
work as a tailor without success, so I got my first job at Cape Hill Brewery,
Mitchells & Butlers, as a cooperís labourer.† I stuck it
for about six months, and then I went off to work at Geoffrey Hughes biscuit
factory making cream that was put into the biscuits.
And did you eat many biscuits as you went along?
Yes, I did eat quite a lot of the biscuits because, as you
know, you can eat as much as you want, but you couldn‘t take them out.† So
I think there is where my diabetes has started, because I was dealing with
a lot of sugar and fat, and you‘ve got to taste the cream to find out if it
was sweet enough or whether you wanted to put any more sugar in or whatever,
and probably there‘s where my diabetes started.
So it was done by tasting rather than measuring, was it?
You measure it, and then after measuring it you taste it
to see what the flavour came up to, if it came up to the standard that they
wanted.† So sugar played a lot, and in those days you were breathing the sugar
as well as eating it at the same time, so you‘re getting a double portion
into your body, and hence there is where I think that I have started to have
How long were you working in the biscuit factory?
I think I worked there for about four or five years.† And
I was still trying to get work as a tailor, and I started to study from London Academy, and after I passed out my
exams, I started to seek work in the trade.
In 1964, shortly after I left the biscuit factory.† I, as
I said, was seeking work as a tailor, and I think after my last daughter was
born, I took a job as a worker in a small tailoring concern.
And how did your diagnosis come about?
I found that I was going to the toilet pretty often and
my mouth was getting dry and I was losing weight, so I thought that there
was something wrong.† And I went to see my doctor, and he, as it were, asked
me to give him a sample of my urine, which then I did.† And at the time he
didn‘t tell me that it was diabetes, but he sent me to the General Hospital for an examination, and they did do the examination and diagnosed
Was this as an outpatient?
This was an outpatient General Hospital in the city centre of Birmingham.
Did they say to you what type of diabetes it was?
Not at the time, they didn‘t tell me the type of diabetes.†
They put me on some tablets for a few months and asked me to come back to
see them, which then I did do, and when I went back to see them, they increased
the tablets.† And after another six months or so I went back to see them again,
and there and then it seem as though the diabetes wasn‘t being settling down
properly, so therefore they introduced me to insulin.
Can you remember what the tablets were that you were on,
or what it was like to be on them?
(6) How did you feel while you were on the tablets?
I wasn‘t ill, I didn‘t feel ill in myself because I was
still going to work every day.† I got up in time and I went to work on time,
but somehow it seem as though the tablets didn‘t actually work, because after
my six months I went back to see them, and they diagnosed, or think that the
tablets were not working, hence they introduced me to insulin.
When you were first diagnosed with diabetes, what help did
you get with diet and testing blood sugars and so on?
When I first went on to the injections, a nurse used to
call at the house to give me the injection and I had to wait until she come
in, probably she might get there about nine or ten o‘clock in the morning,
before I could have something to eat.† Therefore I sort of adjust myself to
her coming and waiting to have something to eat.† My meals were normal meals
but they put us on a ration, asking so much for bananas, so much for an apple,
so much for the intake of rice and yam and potatoes and things like that.
They were all written down.† You had, say, one and a half
rations for a ripe banana, three rations maybe for rice, two rations maybe
for an apple or a pear or whatever, and those rations accumulate together
to give you a meal, and that meal would be, say, ten rations.† And you go
onto another meal, which would probably come up to about six rations, so if
you should have, say, sixteen rations for the day as a meal, that‘s how you
have to divide them up as you go along.
It sounds as though the rations were fairly well adjusted
to West Indian food, for example they included rice, which perhaps wasn‘t
so common in the 1960s.
Yes, it was very well organised.† It seem as though that
they knew that diabetes was something prevalent to West Indians on the whole,
and hence in the early years they begin to give us rations and things like
that, knowing, or having the foods tested to know, how much rations you should
have for that particular day‘s meal.
How did you test your blood sugar?
I‘ve got in my hand here a Clinitest colour chart.† The
chart, it comes in different colours, you have blue, slight green, a dark
green, a browny colour, another browny
colour and a yellow colour.† These were tested with tablets.† You had to take
from your urine two drops into a little bottle, and as you drop the tablet
into the receiver, it bubbles, and after a minute it settles down and it gives
you the different colours that is on the chart.† The blue is negative, and
as it goes down to another one, two, three, four different colours it comes
to yellow, and if it shows yellow it means that your blood sugar is high.
And what would you do then, if you found it was high?
When the blood sugar becomes high, and it shows yellow,
we increase your insulin dose by two or three measures to reduce your sugar
intake, or you would reduce your intake of food to adjust your insulin as
you go along.
I found it was very hard, not for myself particularly, but
for my wife.† Because of the family, they had to make two different type of
cooking.† And I wasn‘t quite happy to see my wife having to adjust herself
to cook two different meals, so I said to her ďmake the meal as usual and
I will eat what I think my rations would come toĒ, and partake of the meal
like everybody else was having.
Returning to the district nurse coming to your house to
give you your injections when you were first on insulin.† How long did that
go on for?
I think that went on for a few weeks really, and they asked
me to come back to the hospital as a day-care in-patient, and there they taught
me how to self inject myself with the insulin.† It was only a day.† They gave
me an orange and a syringe and needle and asked me to use it in the orange,
to see that I was doing it correctly.† After that I had to do it myself, in
my own body.† There were various places that they said that you can do it,
in your leg, in your tummy, on your arm, in your buttocks, and various places
like that.† The softer part of your body is always the best to use for your
And where did you do your injections?
I first started doing it in my leg and then I referred to
my arm, and sometimes I use my tummy or my buttocks as well.
Do you feel that you got good training from the hospital
in how to cope with diabetes?
Yes, I think I did have quite good instructions as how to
inject myself and how to use my diet, and I‘m quite pleased with the way that
they have taught me how to do various things concerning diabetes.
How did you manage your work as well as having all these
hospital appointments or waiting in for the district nurse?
Well the hospital appointments, they are very few and far
between, and I was self-employed early, which was in ‘68 I think, when I started
on my own, and I hadn‘t to ask anyone to allow me to go.† I just fill in myself
and, you know, kept my appointments as I go along.
Did having diabetes affect your work in any way?
Diabetes did not affect my work in any way.† I still went
to work, and I do a day‘s work like anybody else, as long as I take my injections
in the morning.† I get up and I have a meal, and then I go off to work, whether
it‘s cold or warm or whatever, so it didn‘t affect me in any way at all.
I was a tailor.† I work for different people, people like
Mr Phillip Collierís in Kings Heath, and I spent about a year or two with
Mr Collier before I started my own business in Balsall
Heath, so that in itself was okay, it didn‘t affect me in anyway at all.†
So my diabetes was well controlled and I continued to work, and as I said,
it‘s never bothered me sufficiently enough as to keep me away from work, really.
How did your family react to your having diabetes?
I don‘t think they had any reactions at all about it.† We
all adjust ourselves, as I said, I never gave any particular problem.† To
be honest with you, I felt just as normal, you know, like everyone else really,
any other healthy person, as long as I adjust myself to my diet and my injections,
I was okay.
Did you ever have hypos?
I‘ve had hypos.† I know when a hypo is coming along and
I always take with me something sweet, anything like a sweet, or a chocolate,
or biscuit, or something like that, so that I know when it‘s coming along
that I should have something else to rebuild up my blood sugar.
You mentioned that you didn‘t want to bother your wife,
so you didn‘t really get her to cook special meals.† So how did you plan your
My own diet wasn‘t planned in any way at all.† As I said,
I gave my wife the opportunity of cooking for the family and I would partake
of whatever she made or she cooked for us to eat.† As I said, instead of taking
big portions, I‘d take smaller portions, and it didn‘t affect me in any way
So would you say you were keeping to the diet that you were
In a way I think I was, or probably.† The diet that I was
given was not sufficient to keep me going, and as I revert back to my way
of eating it was a lot better, because somehow I probably have more energy
to work and things like that.† So it didn‘t affect me really, you know, the
different type of cooking.
So you mean
(10) that you really chose what you ate yourself, rather than what was
prescribed by the hospital?
I chose what I wanted to eat myself rather than to stick
to the rations that the hospital let out for me really, and I found that it
worked better, to be honest.
Did you tell the doctors or nurses that you were doing that?
I never mentioned anything about my diet at all.† I just
go in and see them and take my samples in as usual, and they would say "everything
is all right", and "come back in another six months", or "come
back in another year‘s time", and they check on me again and, you know,
they put me off for another year or two again, you know and so forth, so it
must have been working.
Did you adjust your insulin according to what you‘d eaten?
Being a diabetic for such a long time, I know exactly how
my body reacts, and I adjust my insulin intake according to the way my body
reacts, so that over the years I know exactly how to adjust, and how to really
work my insulin intake out, in order to keep healthy.
Would that be affected by what exercise you took as well
I would think that if I do exercise I would use up a lot
of energy, and for that reason sometimes I lower my insulin just that little
bit, and if I am not really doing anything physically I just stick to my normal
way of my insulin intake.
And really you‘ve devised this off your own bat, you haven‘t
been advised to do this by anyone in the medical profession?
I did it off my own back.† As I said, during the years of
the experience that I‘ve had, I‘ve learned how to adjust my insulin intake,
and therefore I find that it works out quite well, rather than going to a
nurse or to the doctor to ask him what to do, because eventually they are
going to tell me to do the same thing, either to increase my insulin or decrease
the insulin.† So I know exactly how to adjust myself.
How did people outside your family react to your having
I didn‘t have to tell anyone that I had diabetes.† I went
about my work as usual and I never said anything to anyone itself.† It is
only the close relations, like my family, knew that I had diabetes, and if
you go out anywhere to have a meal or dinner I would eat just the same like
anyone else.† I didn‘t ask them to make any special adjustments for me, so
there was no need for me to tell them that I‘ve got diabetes.
I was advised that I should take exercise, because if you
don‘t exercise, you find that your body would not be able to use up the insulin
that you have got intake of, so that your exercise gets your body free to
move around.† If you sit down too much and you find that you are getting too
stiff, you‘ve got to get up and make some sort of movement in order to be,
your muscles, not seizing up but working along with your body.
So what kind of exercise did you take?
I do a lot of walking and running - not too much, because
if you‘re taking your insulin and you‘re running, you‘re using up all your
blood sugar and hence you‘d find yourself in difficulty.† So you could take
a fair pace of walking, or a slight jogging, for about a couple of miles,
or something like that, and if you find that your blood sugar has gone down,
you always have a sweet or something like that with you so that you can build
your blood sugar up again and get starting again.
Can you remember changing the method of testing your blood
Can you talk about the different ways in which you‘ve tested
your blood sugar?
There are two ways of testing your blood sugar.† One is
with a strip that you pass through the stream of your urine, and the other
one is a blood test that you use from a little machine.† You take a couple
of drops of blood from your finger and you place it onto the machine, a tab
on the machine, and the machine more or less tells you exactly the amount
of sugar that‘s in the body.† With the strips, the strips is only colour strips
in itself and it gives you different colours, but with the little machine
that has been issued to you, it tells exactly the amount of sugar that‘s left
in your blood.
And which method do you usually use?
I use both, but I mostly use the machine, because that in
itself give you more a correct way of knowing the amount of sugar that‘s in
But you do still use strips now in 2004?
I still use the strips.† They are being issued to you through
your doctors, or from the chemists.† You can use them, probably, during your
I haven‘t had a lot of complications really in itself.†
In the latter years, I have found out that my muscles are becoming slightly
weaker, and at times, when I go to have my usual annual check-up, the doctor
would probably test me with a needle or with a feather and ask me if I feel
the thing on my body.† Sometimes, in certain places, you can feel it and in
certain places you don‘t feel it, so it seem as though it begins to take effect
after a certain amount of years, in itself.† As I said, it‘s over forty years
now and you can‘t expect that everything is going to be hunky dunky
as you go through, but I‘m still grateful I‘m able to walk around.† I‘m not
in a wheelchair, as it were, but who knows what the future takes on.
Any other complications with eyes or heart?
Not really. †I am at the hospital, the eye hospital.† I
go to see them annually and it seems to be pretty steady, I haven‘t had any
major operations in that respect at all.† I can still see properly.† I can
thread a needle without having to use glasses or anything like that, so my
eyes are fairly good.
Have you had high blood pressure?
I have had high blood pressure, and my doctor put me on
some tablets just to lower the blood pressure.† It‘s only this morning I went
to see the nurse actually, and I think she said it‘s a hundred and eighty
over sixty, which is high in itself, so she‘s asking me to use my tablets
in order to lower the blood pressure a bit more.
Does most of your treatment come from the local GP‘s surgery
or from a hospital?
In actual fact, it‘s between the hospital and my doctor.†
My doctor‘s a very good doctor, and sometimes the hospital will have to put
you off for a year, and it means that it‘s a long year before you go back
to see them.† But in between that, my doctor gives me a six months check-up
to see how things are going before I go back to the hospital in itself, so
Iím quite pleased in the way that I‘m being treated.
Who do you see at the hospital?
I see a doctor who specialises in diabetes.† As you go to
see them they, you know, just check you out, check your toes, check your blood,
and ask you various questions as to your way of life and things like that,
you know, so it‘s okay.
Do you see a nurse or a podiatrist?
No, I haven‘t seen a nurse or a podiatrist to be honest.†
I always go and see a doctor in itself.
What do they say about your feet?
Well they haven‘t said much about my feet.† They ask me
to look at my feet, they look at my feet, but they only check me with the
needle and to see my reaction by using a feather on my leg, or they might
probably probe my knee and ligaments and things like that to see that they‘re
okay, but they‘ve never really said I should do anything particularly about
it.† Occasionally I go and see a chiropodist, who would cut my nails and,
you know, keep the feet pretty clean and things like that, but nothing more
than that to be honest.
(13) What do you think the secret of your good health is?
By eating the right thing and taking exercises. I find that,
as I say, I measure my intake of what I eat.† As you know, you can‘t have
sweets, cut the sweets out completely.† But at times, as I say, I‘m fortunate
enough to know when I‘m getting a hypo, and I always carry something with
me so that I could build up my blood sugar again.† And I try to keep it as
level as possible, so that I‘ve never really had any problems, as it were,
living.† To me, diabetes is one of the best anyone can have, rather than having
something like cancer or anything like that, because, I mean, you can adjust
yourself where diabetes is concerned and you still can get about your business,
just like everybody else, so I‘m grateful it‘s not cancer.
I‘ve noticed that you have some difficulty with walking.†
Why is that?
I don‘t think that it has anything to do with diabetes itself.†
I had two operations in the past twenty years, and that is pertaining to a
spinal cord injury that I‘ve had.† I noticed that when I bend my neck down
that I was getting shockwaves leading down from my neck straight down to my
legs, and I was told by the doctors that my spinal cord is touching against
the vertebrae itself.† And the operations that I‘ve had was to put that right
in itself.† So I think that it‘s not completely cured, because they‘ve said
that they can‘t do anything more, and it means that as I‘m getting older that
it‘s affecting my walking, as it is now.† So I don‘t think, within myself,
that diabetes itself has caused me not to be able to be as mobile as I would
like to be.
(14) Have you noticed any differences in the way you‘ve been treated by
the medical profession over the years?
There is only one little thing that I‘ve noticed, in that
your waiting time seems to be a little bit longer, but other than that in
itself, I haven‘t seen anything different in itself. I‘m well treated from
the time I was diagnosed as a diabetic, and I‘ve got no complaints about the
medical trade at all.† In actual fact, I praise them quite a lot, because
they seem to look after the patients very well.† I‘ve no encounter with any
of the other nurses or doctors or anyone, and I‘m quite pleased with the way
how they treat me, to be honest.
There have never been any mistakes in your treatment or
loss of medical notes, or anything at all?
No, not to my knowledge.† I was first diagnosed, as I said,
some years ago, and I attended the General
Hospital, which was situated in the middle of Birmingham.†
And they‘ve changed from that hospital now to various other hospitals, and
my notes seems to go wherever hospital that is treating diabetics, the notes
have been taken there.† I also go to the Selly Oak Hospital, and the notes seems to follow me wherever I go, so there
is no problem with my notes at all.
Which hospitals have you been treated at?
At the moment I‘m being treated at the Selly Oak Hospital,
I go there annually for them to check up on me, and I also attend the QE,
but that is for a different reason altogether really, that‘s nothing to do
with the diabetes itself.
(15) Have you noticed any changes in attitudes among ordinary people, non
Diabetes in itself, I think a lot of people nowadays know
about diabetes itself.† And there are various programmes, where people are
being told that they should go and see their doctor if they find that they
are doing things that are not quite normal, like probably going to the toilet
or being thirsty, or things like that, and they go and see their doctors.†
They‘re being urged to do things as to make themselves be aware of diabetes
itself, and by doing that, be able to know exactly how their lives should
be adjusted to whatever aspect there is.
So you find that people know about diabetes more when you
say you‘re diabetic?
There are a lot of people who know about diabetes, as I
said, nowadays, because it‘s more publicised.† And if you tell someone that
you‘re a diabetic, you‘re not treated as a leper any more, because there are
so many people that have diabetes these days that it‘s not something that
is hidden really, so, you know, you‘re accepted wherever you go.
You say you‘re not treated as a leper any more.† Were you
ever treated as a leper?
Well sometimes people would think that because youíre a
diabetic, because you‘re having to adjust yourself to taking your insulin
and things like that, they might think that you‘re a burden and you‘re having
to adjust your meals and things like that, but not nowadays really.† Everybody
accepts you as someone else, just like anyone else, you know, as a healthy
Did you have any experiences of feeling that you were a
burden early on?
Not really, no.† As I said, it was only my close relations
knew that I was diabetic.† I didnít tell everybody or anyone that I am diabetic
in itself, so, you know, I didn‘t have a problem there.†
Do you tell people nowadays?
I don‘t really walk up to anyone and tell them that I‘m
a diabetic, to be honest.† If I‘m out or have a meal or anything like that,
I sit down and have a meal just like anyone else, and it‘s only my close relations
who know that I‘m diabetic.
(16) Do you have any message for somebody who is diagnosed with diabetes
Diabetes is not a death sentence, it‘s an awareness of the
way your body works, and if you adjust yourself to the way your body works,
you can live your life span just like any other healthy person.† There is
nothing to be afraid of, as long as you eat sensibly, exercise sensibly; you
can live your life span just like any other normal person.† Don‘t be afraid
of having diabetes, it‘s not a death sentence, it‘s an awareness, so that
you can know before anything goes further.† As long as you‘re being diagnosed
in the early years you‘re able to adjust yourself, and you can live your lifespan
just like any other normal person.
So do you feel that diabetes has changed your life in any
way from how it might have been?
No, diabetes hasn‘t changed my life in any way at all.†
I still go about normally, like everyone else.† I eat and drink like anyone
else, I have a glass of wine, but I limit myself to what my intake is in itself.†
And I still have been able, not being impotent, so I sort of adjust myself,
as I say, then I found that life is just as normal as possible, no difference