Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Year Of My Diagnosis

September 15, 1945 was the day. We had an appointment with a doctor in Salem, Virginia that day. He had ordered a blood sugar test to be done prior to that appointment. Mother and Daddy did not know what that test involved, or anything at all about "blood sugar". They had watched my health deteriorate over the preceding months and my pale, skinny body clearly showed I was very ill. There was much weight loss and no appetite. My other symptoms included drinking much water and passing urine frequently, in large amounts. I was weak and had very little energy for several months. My poor health began in early 1941.

I was born Richard Alvin Vaughn in Roanoke, Virginia on September 10, 1939. When I was two years old I had measles that settled in my ears. There was a fever that made me very sick. Mother told me I had three kinds of measles in nine months time. There was infantile measles, German measles (Rubella) and Red measles. Perhaps those illnesses lowered my resistance and began a spiral that led to more sickness in the years ahead.

In May of 1942 I had a hernia on my right side near my hip joint. It ruptured and I had to wear a truss. The rupture became worse and surgery was needed. There was such a long stay in the hospital that I had to learn to walk again.

My tonsils were removed later that year. There was some bleeding the first night after returning home and there were splotches of blood on my face the next morning. My parents thought that my throat had been bleeding. They took me to the doctor. He said rats had been biting me and had bitten through my lip. The rats had smelled the blood from the surgery. Mother's story did not say what was done to eliminate the rats. I do remember that big rat traps were set to catch rats while we lived in that house.

In early 1945, at five years of age, I had chicken pox and mumps, both within a few months time. Because of my previous illnesses and my hernia, I was already rather skinny and not very healthy. After partially recovering from the chickenpox and mumps I started losing weight and by mid-summer I was skin and bones. That was when all those symptoms began.

We saw a doctor but he had no diagnosis and he prescribed a tonic to help me regain my appetite. The tonic probably contained sugar and was most likely much the same as the old "snake oil" remedies that were not uncommon back then. The tonic was ineffective and we saw a second doctor. Still no diagnosis and it was the same with a third doctor. Mother and Daddy never gave up though and we saw a fourth doctor. He was the one who recognized my symptoms.

Despite my condition, my parents enrolled me in first grade at a nearby elementary school. There was a bathroom in one corner of the classroom. I spent much time there. Mrs Thompson, the teacher, became very annoyed with this despite the fact that Mother had explained my symptoms to her. Not long after school began that fall we were called and my parents were told that we should see the doctor the next day.

It is strange that I can remember where my family members stood in the doctor's office that day. Mother sat to my left and Daddy stood behind us with my two year old sister, Shirley, in his arms. It is easy to remember that day so clearly because there was a look on Mother's face that scared me when the doctor announced my "sugar diabetes". That expression on Mother's face is something I will never forget.

The doctor did not say a lot about my disease. He said that they should take me to the hospital and that there would be another doctor who would meet us there. We were told that doctor knew a lot about sugar diabetes and he would be my doctor in the years ahead. Mother was too frightened to say much. Daddy said nothing. Mother was always the one to ask questions in a situation like that, but this time, even she was almost speechless.

We met Dr. D. for the first time at the hospital. They gave me insulin and said that it would make me healthy again. The insulin was called beef and pork insulin because it was taken from cows and pigs. He told Mother and Daddy to never give me sugar, or any food containing a lot of sugar. Those were the only instructions Dr. D., the "diabetes expert", had for us. He was a far cry from an endocrinologist but we were told that he was the best doctor for diabetes patients in the Roanoke-Salem area at that time. Doctors knew so little about diabetes in the 1940s.

My stay in the hospital is all a blur, but the insulin did great things for me in a short time. My appetite was good and there was some weight gain. Insulin from pigs and cows saved my life and I regained much of my health. Insulin was discovered in 1921 and first sold in 1923. It was there for me only 22 years after it was first available.

So there we were with vials of insulin taken from animals, a glass syringe, and metal needles that were twisted onto the end of the syringe. The syringe and a needle were sterilized by boiling them on top of our stove every morning. Daddy gave one injection before breakfast each day. The insulin was a twenty four hour insulin.

We also tested my urine for sugar prior to my injection. A blue liquid called Benedict's solution was poured into a large test tube, and 8 drops of urine were added. Then the tube was placed upright into a metal container and the water in the container was boiled. When the tube was removed the solution would progress in the colors of blue (with no sugar present), green, yellow, orange, red, and brick red or brown (with very high sugar present). A color change would indicate the presence of sugar. My urine was checked only once each day.

The needle was very long. It may have been about three quarters of an inch in length. We were instructed to stick the needle directly into the muscle on my arms or the top of my upper legs. The diameter of the needles was greater than the ones used now. That was necessary so that a piece of wire could be inserted to unclog them. The injections were very painful. I remember them very clearly.

My 6th birthday was on September 10 that year and my diagnosis was on September 15. There was so much sickness from the symptoms of my diabetes. It was not a very happy birthday.

At six years of age I was too young to understand what was taking place. Candy and other sugar treats were not allowed and I am sure that disappointed me. There was really no other change in my rather normal life, except for the morning injections. Insulin made me healthy again and life went on as usual. I was a happy and carefree kid. None of us knew how serious diabetes could be at that time.

My picture in first grade, age 6


  1. Richard, when I read the story of your diagnosis (again), it makes me think about the day I found out about my diabetes and how scared and frightened I was. And your description of all the things they did to you at the time and how they treated diabetes proves to me that things can come a long way in a short time.

    I was also thinking that with all the pumps and CGM's and meters etc. that are available for us today who knows what is ahead for us in the coming years. Will we look back on things, as you have done here, describing the painful needles and pork insulin and such, and think boy what archaic devices?

    I hope that one day they will come up with devices that are less cumbersome and integrated and implantable. It may be just a dream now, but when I read your story it actually gives me so much hope. That and the fact that you have lived a healthy and productive life for so long. What an inspiration you are!!

  2. Thanks Susie, I did not expect you to read this blog, since you have read my book. Lol! I always appreciate your input.

    Yes, I do believe that innovations in the future will make some of today's diabetes equipment and treatments look somewhat archaic. The thing now on the horizon is the Artificial Pancreas. I have been reading about it, It is expected to be available to us by 2015.

  3. This was an amazing story! I was diagnosed four years ago, and I've had the insulin pump for most of the time, so it is interesting to read about how diabetes was treated back then.