My health experience: ‘I never allow my disease to limit what I can and cannot do’

Law graduate James O’Reilly cycled from Geneva to Brussels to help research into type 1 diabetes

In October 2006, at the age of 17 and just a few weeks into my sixth year of secondary school, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. In the weeks prior to this, I displayed most of the classic symptoms – rapid weight loss, unquenchable thirst, excessive urination, muscle cramp, nausea and a rash. No one in the family had any education on type 1 diabetes so the symptoms went unaddressed until a near ketoacidosis-induced coma required a visit to the emergency department

Within minutes of entering the hospital I was given the diagnosis and over the next 24 hours had 10 litres of fluids delivered intravenously. I had to have my vital organs X-rayed for possible damage. After seven days in hospital I was let loose, armed with the blood glucose meters, insulin pens and the needles I was going to have to use to keep myself alive for the foreseeable future.


Post-diagnosis my life changed from that of a young, athletic teenager to that of a long-term outpatient living to a set of very particular constrictions and limitations.

But now, fortunately, I can say that I never allow my disease to limit what I can and cannot do.


As a type 1 diabetic I am very lucky to have access to insulin that keeps me alive but, unfortunately, it can also kill me if I take too much. There is an inordinate amount of variations which have to be considered when calculating how much insulin to take at different times of the day. Understanding, anticipating and adapting to variations takes a lot of trial and error so post-diagnosis I was advised to make my life as simple as possible in order to learn how my body worked.

I was advised to stop all forms of exercise and even take a year out of school. Looking back, that advice annoys me because after nine years of living with this disease, I know there is nothing that a type 1 diabetic cannot do (apart from produce insulin obviously). The only thing that holds you back is a lack of knowledge. I wish my medical team had been better educated and had more bravery to encourage me to continue to do all the things I enjoyed, which included exercise.

I recently took part in the 2015 mHealth Grand Tour which involved a 1,500km cycle with 20,000 metres of climbing over 10 days where 26 riders with type 1 diabetes took part in a medico-scientific observational study conducted by Orange in association with the Société Fancophone du Diabete.


Icon, an Irish-based company, specialising in conducting medical research trials, heard about the tour and decided to sponsor a type 1 rider from Ireland.

The company was put in contact with Diabetes Ireland, of which I am a member. They were aware I am a keen cyclist so I was offered the place, which I felt very privileged and honoured to accept for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it was obvious that by participating in the tour and, in particular, the study, I would have the opportunity to actively help the diabetes community and spread the message that you can do anything you want with type 1.

By joining the tour I knew I would have the opportunity to meet some amazing people who would inspire me.

And, finally, the fact that I was being sponsored meant I had the opportunity to take part in something special that I might not have been able to do otherwise.

I was and am really thankful to both groups for showing such belief in me.

But completing the tour wasn’t easy. Having never undertaken so many back-to-back days in the saddle or endured that amount of climbing, I was in unknown territory.

Thankfully, I was able to do it, both physically and mentally, more so than I previously thought. I never would have predicted that once we got into the high mountains of the Vosges and the Alps that the terrain would suit me so well.


Completing the tour has given me the confidence and the drive to pursue my cycling on a more serious level.

For anyone who has been recently diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, you need to become an active patient and take control of your diabetes care yourself. The most important thing you need to equip yourself with is knowledge.

Insulin pens, blood glucose meters, insulin pumps, continuous glucose monitors and all the rest of the equipment we use to maintain healthy blood glucose control is useless without the knowledge of how to use it to its best advantage.

Read as much as you can, attend as many meetings as you can, talk to anyone willing to answer your questions, always ask for a second opinion and apply any new information in a logical manner.

As a type 1 diabetic you can still do awesome things, you just have to do them as a type 1 diabetic, so make sure you find out how.

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Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in health, lifestyle, parenting, travel and human interest stories