The pump has given me greater freedom


MY HEALTH EXPERIENCE: DONAL BURKE:‘I can finely tune my insulin doses to suit my needs’

WHEN I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of three and started on insulin injections, my parents taught me that I did not have to let diabetes control my life.

They helped me to manage my diabetes and ensured I could manage it for myself so I did not have to rely totally on them.

My grandparents on both sides had diabetes so my parents recognised the symptoms quite quickly although neither of them has it. By the time I started primary school, the other children were counting from one to 10 but I was doing multiplications of units of insulin to grams of carbohydrates.

Having to take insulin injections several times a day meant I had quite a regimented lifestyle as a young child. I had to eat at very specific times each day to avoid my levels going too low and had to do finger tip blood tests four or five times a day. If I was playing sport, I always had to make sure my dad was on the sidelines with a can of coke and I had to try to co-ordinate my sport with meals and injections.

When I was in sixth class, I finally convinced my mother to let me change to an insulin pump. She was hesitant at first since I had such good control of my diabetes on the injections despite their lack of flexibility. The pump gave me a huge degree of flexibility and much greater control over my diabetes and I no longer had the regimented lifestyle the injections demanded.

I could now eat when I was hungry rather than as a necessity to avoid going low. The pump meant I could have a lie-in on a Saturday morning and play a football match at any time of the day. It also made my diabetes treatment more discreet. I no longer had to bring my glucose meter, injections and sugary food with me when I went out with my friends. With the pump, I didn’t have the awkwardness of having to take out needles and insulin pens.

In 2009, I was put on a different insulin pump with a glucose sensor and low glucose suspend system which has given me even more control over my diabetes and allowed me to fine-tune my treatment.

The new pump has advanced features which allow me to set certain levels for my sugars and beeps to alert me if they are going too high or too low. If my sugars dip below a certain level, the pump will stop giving me insulin and switch off to avoid a severe low and reduce my risk of going into a diabetic coma.

The pump itself is about the size of a credit card and works by giving a small dose of insulin every hour via a kind of IV cannula. It also allows me to take an extra boost of insulin by means of a bolus to replace the injections I had to take at meal times.

Since the pump works by giving me only short-acting insulin, I avoid any of the peaks commonly caused by the long-acting insulin injections. The glucose sensor is a separate device placed onto the skin with a transmitter which measures the amount of glucose in the tissue just below my skin and sends the readings directly to the pump where I can get a graph of blood sugars for the last 24 hours. No more finger tip tests.

The pump has made a huge difference to my life. Nowadays, the only reason people can tell I’m a diabetic is when my pump beeps. It has given me greater control over my diabetes as I can finely tune my insulin doses to suit my needs.

It has given me greater freedom in life, especially when I go out with friends, as I can wait until everyone else wants to eat and can discretely take insulin and monitor my sugars without the awkwardness of having to explain what the injections are for.

The pumps are expensive, but you can apply to the Health Service Executive to pay for the pump. I had the full cost of my pump covered (about €4,000) and they also cover the cost of my cannulas, reservoirs and sensors under the long-term illness scheme.

I have just been offered a place to study pharmacy at Trinity College Dublin. It was my first choice and I’m thrilled to have got it. Having my insulin pump will make a big difference to me in college life as I won’t have to worry about working around timetables with meals and injections.

In conversation with MICHELLE McDONAGH


Diabetes mellitus is a lifelong condition caused by a lack or insufficiency of the hormone insulin.

In diabetes, the pancreas makes too little insulin to enable all the sugar in a person’s blood to get into their muscle and other cells to produce energy. This sugar then builds up in the bloodstream which is why diabetes is characterised by high blood sugar levels.

Type 1 diabetes tends to occur in childhood or early adult life and always requires treatment with insulin injections or pump infusions.

It is caused by the body’s own immune system destroying the insulin-making cells (beta-cells) of the pancreas.

Type 2 diabetes usually develops slowly in adulthood. It is progressive and can sometimes be treated with diet and exercise, but may require anti-diabetic medicine and/or insulin injections.

Diabetes Ireland estimates that during 2011, the number of people with diabetes in Ireland (type 1 and 2 combined) reached 191,000 – those with type 1 diabetes account for about 14-16,000 of the total diabetes population.

Irish paediatricians and endocrinologists estimate that there are between 3,000 and 4,000 children, adolescents and young adults (aged 0 to 19 years) living with diabetes in Ireland, virtually 100 per cent of whom have type 1 diabetes.

The symptoms of type 1 diabetes include fast onset of extremely high blood sugar levels which cause weight loss, hunger, fatigue, thirst and frequent urination.

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