Amber Lopes knows a lot about the highs and lows of living with diabetes, and not just in terms of her blood sugar levels. The lows include near-death experiences and fears that she would never live a “normal” life; the highs include becoming a mother and sharing her happiness and hopes with other people who have diabetes.
My whole life turned upside down. I couldn’t do what my friends were doing. Many of my friends wouldn’t even hang out with me because they were scared something might happen to me. It was very hard and hurtful.— Amber Lopes was diagnosed with diabetes at age 12
Amber was just 12 years old when she fell into a diabetic coma one night just after Christmas in 1995. She survived only because her father heard her fall out of bed and rushed her to hospital, where she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and treated for diabetic ketoacidosis, a life-threatening condition in which the body does not have enough insulin to process blood sugar (glucose). Although she miraculously survived a 48-hour diabetic coma, it was a blow for the preteen to learn that she had diabetes and would have to give herself insulin injections for the rest of her life.
“My whole life turned upside down. I couldn’t do what my friends were doing,” she remembers.
“Many of my friends wouldn’t even hang out with me because they were scared something might happen to me. It was very hard and hurtful.”
For several years, Amber struggled to manage rapidly see-sawing and unpredictable blood sugar levels. Fruit could send her blood sugar soaring, while a cold – or even strong emotions, like being upset or excited – could plunge her levels so low she had to be hospitalized. One afternoon when she was in university, tired from classes and eager to be heading home for a visit, her blood sugar crashed (known as hypoglycemia), causing her to pass out and fall to the ground in front of a gas station. “I had fallen a couple of times and I had dirt in my hair, so some people thought I was drunk or on drugs. If the people at the gas station hadn’t called an ambulance to take me to hospital, I wouldn’t have survived,” she says.
It wasn’t until she got an insulin pump in her 20s that her diabetes became easier to manage. The pump dispenses the right amount of insulin at the right time, which reduces the risk of low or high blood sugar levels. “Getting an insulin pump was a life-changing experience,” says Amber, who is now 40 and living in Ontario.
The pump not only improved Amber’s blood sugar management, it also gave her newfound freedom and flexibility. Still, she worried that some people might feel uncomfortable seeing a medical device attached to her body. That changed a few years ago when a 12-year-old girl saw Amber wearing a bikini with her pump in full view. The girl, who also has type 1 diabetes, told Amber that she had been embarrassed by her pump, but Amber’s example helped her wear it with confidence. “That was the best moment,” says Amber.
The experience led her to start sharing her diabetes story with more people, including through Diabetes Canada campaigns and events. She is hopeful that fundraising and research will eventually lead to a cure – “We’re getting closer every day” – but in the meantime, she focuses on living her best life with her husband, Philip, and their two young children.
“Yes, I still have challenges and frustrations living with diabetes,” she says. “But each morning I wake up with a positive mindset, and I tell myself, ‘Today is a good day. I got this!’”
About DKA Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) occurs when the body does not have enough insulin to move sugar from the blood into the cells to use as energy. This leads to a buildup in the blood of acids known as ketones. This life-threatening condition is most common in children and youth with type 1 diabetes. For answers about DKA, as well as other diabetes-related questions, check out Diabetes Canada’s Ask the Experts video series.
Advertising feature produced by Randall Anthony Communications with Diabetes Canada. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.