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A recurring theme throughout last week’s ADS ADEA meeting in Perth was the need to manage expectations. I think, in general, we do a really lousy job of this in diabetes.

We’re told that can expect to live a ‘normal life’ after a diabetes diagnosis, when that’s not necessarily the truth.

We’re told we can expect to eat whatever they want, when really, the effort that goes into calculating medication doses depending on the nutrient value of our foods is hard and it may be easier for some to actually limit food choices to make things a little easier.

We’re told to expect a cure in five years’ time, when the truth is that a cure is not even on the distant horizon.

We’re told that we can expect new technology to significantly reduce the burden of living with diabetes, when the reality is that sometimes, it’s more – not less – work.

We’re told to expect person-centred care, when, really, our health system, is not designed to cater for the individual needs of people living with diabetes.

We’re told that emerging technology will be fully automated, smart and cure-like, but we are not told that there will still be human-input necessary and that the devices are not as smart as a functioning pancreas.

We’re told that if we keep our A1c below 7% we can avoid complications, and yet, there is no guarantee, and some of us do develop complications despite an A1c regularly hitting that magic number.

We are told that if we count carbs and dose the right amount of insulin at the right time, we can keep our glucose levels in range, often neglecting to be told that there are a lot of other factors at play.

We are told all this, and then, when these expectations are not met, we are told we’ve failed. Or we are disappointed.

Here’s the thing. The tools are actually really great. Our health system here in Australia is mostly terrific. The majority of our HCPs genuinely do want to give us the best care they can. We don’t need to oversell things as much as we do.

Our expectations are being set so realistically high, that it’s impossible to meet them.

So, THIS is what I would like to say about all the things I’ve covered above to help manage expectations:

Your life will be different after a diabetes diagnosis. But that’s okay. Your new normal is going to be different to your old normal, but hopefully, there will be very things that diabetes will prevent you from doing. Acting like a pancreas is not really normal, but you can do it!

Yeah, you can eat whatever you want. But it’s undeniable that certain foods are harder to manage after your pancreas decides to go on strike. Find what works for you – and that can change. But do be prepared for food to become something that can be a little fraught because you may find that some of your most favourite foods are a little difficult to deal with.

Researchers are brilliant and amazing and the advances in diabetes management are actually quite mind blowing, but a cure? We’re nowhere near that yet. Keep up to date with everything and try to mine through it to work out what is relevant for you. Keep getting excited about management and tech advances – but do keep it in perspective. (Also – consider the source. I promise you that the Channel 10 news or Buzzfeed is NOT going to be where you learn that diabetes has been cured forever.)

You are going to have a lot that you will want to know and work through, and possible a variety of healthcare professionals to see. As wonderful as it would be to have someone to coordinate it all for you, you’ll have to put in the leg work to find the right team, the right service and the right people. And then, once you’ve found them, it’s still up to you to direct what you need. Otherwise you might find yourself at the mercy of a system that is not really going deliver exactly what you need to get the most from it.

You may have heard that in the US there is a (hybrid-closed loop) pump/CGM combo. Some are calling it an artificial pancreas. It’s not. The tech is incredible, but it’s not fully automated. It still requires calibration and it still requires operator input. This is not me being negative, because the tech is exciting. It’s me being realistic about the level of automation

No new devices are going to completely remove the load diabetes adds to your life, or your involvement in their operation.  Insulin pumps need buttons pushed; CGMs need calibration, food needs to be considered. Full automation may be the goal, but it’s a while off.

An A1c of 7% or below will indeed reduce your risk of developing diabetes-related complications and there is a lot of evidence to support that. But it doesn’t eliminate the risk. That’s the annoying and somewhat unfair reality of diabetes. Unfortunately, it’s the reality. Obviously, do what you can to manage your diabetes as well as you can. But don’t expect that a number is a guarantee of anything.

Carbs and insulin are only part of the equation. How you’re feeling emotionally, illness such as colds and flus, hormones, nutrients other than just carbs, the phase of the moon (well, maybe not) … all these impact on your numbers. And they change. Don’t expect that there is an equation that will work all the time.

In life, we’re often told to expect the unexpected. But in diabetes, the unexpected is often only that way because what we have been told to expect is unrealistic. If we were told the truth, and provided with realistic expectations from diagnosis – and throughout our diabetes lives, perhaps we wouldn’t feel that we’re constantly falling behind and failing.

Here’s me and my boss talking about expectations in technology. 

Disclosures

Roche Diabetes Australia has covered my travel and two night’s accommodation for my stay in Perth as I am a presenter at the Roche Educators Day (RED). There is no expectation from Roche that I will write anything about the RED, but I expect I will because it’s always such an interesting and enjoyable day!

The remainder of my time in Perth is part of my role at Diabetes Australia.

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As someone who is rather passionate about the words we use when we are talking about diabetes, I was framing how I would respond in my endo appointment when I finally received my pathology results yesterday. ‘Path results are not a moral compass, Renza. They give you a snapshot of data and that is information to help you inform treatment decisions moving forward. Nothing more. Nothing less. Your value as a person is not based on the numbers on the paper.’ I repeated the words rhythmically over and over and over again.

And maybe, I almost started to believe them.

I walked into the office and sat down anxiously. With a smile, she handed me sheets of paper. ‘You’ll be happy,’ she said to me. She told me my A1c as she knew that was what I would want to know first.

I flipped through the papers, the numbers starting to blur. I heard the A1c number but the rest stopped making any sense. ‘I don’t know what I’m looking at all of a sudden!’ I said to her.

Ah,’ she said. ‘Let’s start with your kidney check because I know that always worries you.’

We went through all the other results too. I was smiling and almost bursting into tears. ‘I’m so pleased,’ I said. ‘I’m so pleased with myself.’ And it’s true. I was feeling good about myself. And then I stopped taking.

Of course I was pleased; the results were all good. The numbers were in my target range. All of the worries I’d had for the last week melted away. But along with the celebration, I was starting to feel uncomfortable.

If the numbers were not where I wanted, my response would have been disappointment and, perhaps a little shame. I would not have been pleased with myself, instead chastising my lack of effort and feeling I was not enough. Yet, the effort would have been the same regardless of the numbers on the page.

Try as I might, I cannot divorce the idea that an in-target number is somehow connected to my value as a ‘good person’, which translates to an out-of-target number means I’m not. I fight this idea all the time. I write about it, I talk about it, I genuinely thought I believed it. Does the entrenched messaging we are told over and over again by some HCPs mean we actually should assess our own value as people based on numbers (a pathology check, BGL check, CGM trace, weight, blood pressure….)? Can we simply not move beyond the judgement?

I pushed away the thoughts and tried to just breathe with the relief I was feeling.

I walked out, paid the bill and walked to my car. I decided that I wanted to share the good news with Aaron, and I sent him a text with my A1c result. He responded perfectly with a gorgeous message…and then brought me Tim Tams for dessert.

And while we were munching on those Tim Tams, I said to Aaron, ‘You know, I’m really pleased with everything here. I’m pleased with my A1c, but the thing that relieved me more than anything are these five words…’ I leaned over and pointed to the paper at the five words I was referring to:


And I breathed out. Possibly for the first time in a very, very long while.

This is me standing next to my favourite poster drinking from an excellent coffee mug:

And this is a close up of said coffee mug:


And this is the back of same said coffee mug:


Decompressing today and grateful for this little reminder! I love homewares that give a pep talk.

More information about Bill Polonsky and the Behavioural Diabetes Institute here. And more from me about Bill Polonsky here. (And you can buy your very own version of this mug right here.)

Yesterday, I had my annual eye screening. In an endeavour to calm me as much as possible from the anxiety I feel about this annual check-up, I made plans so that it would be the same as my check every year. My dad drove me there, sitting in the waiting room while I faced my fears in the doctor’s office.

I have been going to the same eye specialist centre for 15 years. I’ve seen the same ophthalmologist the whole time and his orthoptist has been the same absolutely delightful woman. She does a super job of calming me down, checking my vision and eye pressure and popping in the dilating drops. And then she sends me off to see her boss so he can have a look at the back of my eyes.

‘The main event’ part of my appointment is always fairly similar and I am fine with that. I know what to expect, I know the order of things and I know that I will have an opportunity to talk about anything concerning me.

We start with my ophthalmologist asking me how I have been and what has changed in my life over the last 12 months. I mentioned that I had changed jobs and we had a chat about that for a moment.

Then he asks if there have been any changes with my diabetes in that period and is always pleased (as am I!) when I report on the mostly boring nature of my diabetes. At this point, he usually asks about my family and any recent travels.

And then, the eye exam. The lights go out, I rest my chin on the contraption and he spends a good 10 to 15 minutes having a look at my eyes, explaining what he is looking at, what he is looking for and, most importantly to me, what he can see.

Or – what he can’t see. I am always hoping that he can’t see any diabetes-related eye disease.

‘Remind me how old you are, Renza,’ he said as he turned the lights back on.

‘I’m turning 43 at the end of the month,’ I said, blinking furiously as my dilated pupils tried to get used to the suddenly bright overhead lights.

And you’ve had diabetes for 18 years, right?’ he asked.

‘Eighteen and a half…,’ I said.

‘There is absolutely no diabetes-related anything going on in your eyes, Renza. It is all good news from me.  You should be really pleased.’

‘I am,’ I said, nodding. I could feel my breathing starting to return to normal, unaware until that moment that I’d been holding my breath.

‘Okay. So…I’ll see you in a year. Of course, come back sooner if there are any changes. But first, is there anything else you wanted to mention?’

‘Oh – yes!’ I suddenly remembered that I had written myself a note in my phone. ‘I have noticed that my eyes have been really watery lately – maybe in the last couple of months. I can’t go outside without tears streaming down my face. It’s a little better if I am wearing sunglasses, but not always.’

‘Let’s have a look,’ he said. ‘It could be a blocked tear duct.’

‘Wait – what are you going to do…?’ Panic was setting in again!

‘Just tilt your head back for a second and I’ll pop some drops in first. And then I’ll do what I need to do.’

I knew that it was not the moment to ask exactly what was going on. I also knew that he has been my eye specialist for 15 years and knows me and my anxieties. And I also know that I trust him completely! I could hear paper rustling – the sound of something sterile being freed from its package.

Renza, I want you to look right up over your head for a second.’ At that point, I saw the syringe. ‘Okay – in a second, you are going to feel some saline running down the back of your throat. Nothing to worry about.’

And at the moment I tasted the salt I realised that THERE WAS A NEEDLE IN MY EYE. AND I WAS AWAKE. And I was not screaming. Or in any pain.

‘That one is fine,’ he said. ‘Let me check the other one.’ And he repeated the procedure, again announcing all to be okay. ‘It’s all fine – nothing to worry about at all.’

‘Great,’ I said. ‘Um…did you just stick a needle in my eye?’

‘I will never say,’ he said, smiling at me.

‘I think we need to acknowledge this new phase of our relationship. I feel I have really grown as an eye patient.’ I said as I gathered up my bag. I thanked him for his time – but really I was thanking him for the awesome ‘report’ and the lovely way he deals with me.

‘I’ll see you next time, Renza. Everything is looking really good.’

I walked out of the room. My dad looked up from the magazine he was reading and stood up. ‘All okay?’ he asked. I nooded. ‘Told you!’ he said – just like he always does.

I smiled. ‘Guess what? I just had a needle stuck IN MY EYE.’ I told him. ‘Did you hear me? A NEEDLE STUCK IN MY EYE.’

I settled the account and made an appointment for the end of next year at the front desk and we got into the elevator. ‘I just had a needle in my eye,’ I said, this time quietly and mostly to myself.

And my eyes are all clear.’

 We walked to the car. All done for another year.

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Pupil still slightly dilated. But an all-clear from the ophthalmologist.

Today, I just want to follow up a little about one of the points I wrote about yesterday in my post about the event I attended on Tuesday evening about diabetes-related foot complications, specifically this point made my A/Prof Ramon Varcoe:

He explored how we make people with diabetes know this technique for saving limbs is available, and said that it is really, really important to inform PWD about it so that they can ASK for it and not just accept a diagnosis of requiring an amputation. He said that this was the group that could really drive change here, by demanding that they have the best treatment possible.

This had me thinking long and hard. I agree with A/Prof Varcoe here, but that is not really a surprise. I am so much about consumer-led healthcare, that I dream about it (sad, but true).

Mostly, I thought about it in context of my own diabetes care and how it has happened that I am such a DTech nerd. I decided after about two years of living with diabetes that I wanted to use an insulin pump. I really just could not get the hang of the MDI situation I had been put on at diagnosis and was the living embodiment of why Protophane was referred to as Protopain.

I went to an information session and heard a women speaking about how much she loved using an insulin pump and what a difference it had made for her quality of life. Afterwards, I spoke with her and by the end of our chat, was convinced. I wanted one of those! (Impressionable little thing, aren’t I? #MarketersDream) This woman would become my pump trainer and the only diabetes educator I have ever seen.

At my next endo appointment, I marched in with the research I had done, the questions I needed answered and an expectation that by the end of the consultation, I would leave with details of how and when and where I would be getting my pump. Ha, the naivety!

My endo was absolutely not keen for me to take the pump road, ‘You’ve not had diabetes long enough,’ he told me, which confused me no end, because it already felt like a lifetime. ‘I think we should talk about this again after you’ve had diabetes for about 5 years. Yes?’

Well, no. That was the last time I saw him. I spent the next six months endo shopping until I found one that (I was promised) would agree to helping me on a way to a pump. I walked in and made it very clear why I was there and he nodded straight away. ‘Yep – we can do that,’ and picked up the phone. And about three months later, I was a pumper. This particular endo and I parted ways not long after because I needed someone who was far more expert in the diabetes and pregnancy track I wanted to embark, but I have always been grateful that I found him and his open attitude to diabetes technology.

When CGM was launched into Australia, I spoke to my diabetes educator and asked her to fill in the required paperwork to get me sensing. She sent the form off the day we spoke.

And the same has happened when I have wanted to change or upgrade diabetes devices.

What I am trying to say is that this has all been led by me. So when A/Prof Varcoe spoke about the importance and value of connecting with PWD and telling them about these new vascular procedures to save limbs and prevent major amputations, it made perfect sense. He urged that we needed PWD to be the ones who, if told they needed to have an amputation, spoke up and asked for a second or third opinion, specifically asking about the very procedure he had just discussed.

This ground swell of action is what causes change, but we need to know exactly what to ask for. It’s far more effective to ask the question ‘Can my artery be revascularised? I understand there is surgery than can do that and may prevent the need for a major amputation.’ rather than just ‘Is there nothing more than can be done?’

So many of the people with diabetes I know are using particular drugs or devices because they have asked for them – not because they were recommended or suggested by their HCP. And this is why PWD need to have all the information. This is why device companies should be going straight to the consumer to share information, not expecting it to happen through HCPs. (I know that there has been discomfort from some HCPs at Abbott’s direct to consumer promotion of Libre – and the fact that PWD can order themselves without needing to see a HCP, but why would that be the case?)

But it is more than just making sure the information is there for PWD to know and see. It is a complete and utter reshaping of a system that a lot of times actually isn’t about empowerment. There are still too many ‘old school’, patriarchal attitudes that dictate care choices to the PWD instead of accepting and encouraging us to lead the way for our own care. I think things are changing, but I also think they are changing far too slowly.

Last night, I heard the most amazing talk about diabetes-related foot complications. (There are words I never thought I’d write.)

Because actually, the talk was about PREVENTION of amputations. Now, I’m not talking about prevention in the sense of ‘Check your feet daily, see a HCP regularly for a foot check or if you identify problems, and wear sensible shoes’, advice I have always taken selectively. (Happy to check my feet, happy to have a HCP check my feet. But I just bought these boots…so I guess two out of three ain’t bad.)  This talk was about prevention of major amputations, thanks to different surgical techniques that can save limbs.

A/Professor Ramon Varcoe, a vascular surgeon from Prince of Wales Hospital in NSW, is my new hero. I listened to his talk absolutely enthralled and amazed. Let me count the ways I adored what he said last night:

  1. He didn’t show gory pictures. (Thank you. Thank you. Thank.You.)
  2. He acknowledged that diabetes is a really difficult condition to live with.
  3. Furthermore, he acknowledged that those who have needed diabetes-related amputations face a really tough future.
  4. He explained in terms this pinhead could understand the techniques he uses to save legs from needing to be amputated. In VERY basic terms it is a technique similar to the surgery used to open arteries in the heart… a fine wire is inserted into the artery and a ‘balloon’ is used to open the artery. (He concluded his explanation by saying ‘Bob’s your uncle; we can ‘revascularise’ the limb’, making it sound so simple that anyone could do it in their kitchen on a rainy afternoon. For the record, maybe don’t do this in the kitchen on a rainy – or sunny – afternoon.)
  5. One way he framed his thinking was to say ‘Think of this as a ‘foot attack, the same as a heart attack’.
  6. He also (almost regretfully) told the audience that very few vascular surgeons perform this surgery and then went on to list the barriers: diabetes foot disease is not sexy; there is limited expertise in the filed now and learning the techniques requires retraining and great skill and there is no kudos (unlike heart surgery which does draw glory!)….Another example of the image problem that diabetes has!
  7. He explained that this technique is less invasive, far, far cheaper to perform, hospital stays are less, the PWD recovers much quicker, and – GET THIS! – the results are outstanding. In fact, reducing major amputations by 62%.
  8. He explored how we make people with diabetes know this technique for saving limbs is available, and said that it is really, really important to inform PWD about it so that they can ASK for it and not just accept a diagnosis of requiring an amputation. He said that this was the group that could really drive change here, by demanding that they have the best treatment possible. (I nearly stood up and applauded at that, but glad I didn’t because the event was at Parliament House and there were a lot of MPs and senators in the room and I was trying to behave).
  9. He called on better training of clinicians and campaigns to raise awareness of the procedure directly to PWD (you know – an amputations prevention initiative?!) which is exactly what we need. EXACTLTY.
  10. And he finished by saying: ‘My vision is for there to be no more major amputations. I hate this operation. Major amputations destroy people and destroy families. And it’s preventable.’
A/Professor Ramon Varcoe

A/Professor Ramon Varcoe

This event was coordinated by Diabetes Australia in association with the Parliamentary Friends of Diabetes Support Group, co-chaired by Rowan Ramsey MP and Graham Perrett MP. I work for Diabetes Australia. 

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