Sean Busby, a Type 1 diabetic, has lately been bagging big lines in Iceland, Antarctica and Patagonia. According to an article at Espn, Sean is preparing for a trip to Greenland with a few first descents in his sights. While most adventurers worry about their water freezing or their boots getting left out in the cold, for Sean if his insulin freezes while he’s on a remote continent, nowhere near a drugstore, he’s toast.
I should know. I’m a diabetic too, and learning to compensate for the disease in an outdoor setting offers a unique set of challenges. Sean uses a OmniPod, which attaches to his skin, keeping the insulin close to his body, away from freezing temperatures. Containing 3 day’s worth of insulin, the pod can maintain his latest doses, but the vial, the one he will use to refill the pod, must also stay out of the elements.
That isn’t easy when you’re climbing in subzero temperatures. For that matter, it’s pretty challenging even on the slopes at Crystal, or any overnight backpacking trip. Extreme temperatures, either hot or cold, will render the insulin useless.
I use an insulin pump (the Medtronic Paradigm). It has many of the advantages of the pod, but I can take it off when I jump in the shower or even go surfing. I’d be afraid the pod would get ripped off in the breaking waves. Furthermore, if I have a low blood sugar, John knows how to disconnect the pump, in the event of an emergency.
When I was first diagnosed with diabetes nearly twenty years ago, my doctor told me not to worry. Innovations in diabetes management were on the horizon. A mechanical pancreas, capable of monitoring blood sugar levels and dispensing insulin accordingly was just around the corner. Twenty years later, they haven’t gotten much closer.
Instead, most diabetes research funding goes into fixing the Type 2 epidemic. 1.9 million people were diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2010. Many of those are due to lifestyle—the wrong diet and lack of exercise. Whereas Type 1, on the other hand, is an auto-immune disease.
When my doctor told me that I could live a “relatively normal life” as a diabetic, my heart sunk. I didn’t want to live a normal life, and any scale diminishing that even by a fraction seemed devastating. A year later, I climbed Mt. Rainier. I recently published an article about that trip—the first post-diagnosis physical test of my body and my medication—in Diabetes Forecast Magazine. I hadn’t yet figured out the ratio for hard physical activity to insulin levels. My doctor had told me to cut my insulin in half on the climb up, assuming that the aerobic exercise would bypass my caloric intake to metabolize my food without the help of the medication. Too much insulin and I ran the risk of a severe low blood sugar reaction. Instead, I went the opposite way and when I reached the summit and checked my blood sugar, it made sense. I’d struggled the last few hours, each footstep a gargantuan effort. When I saw my blood sugar on my glucometer, I understood why. At 365, all the calories I’d been eating were just sitting in my blood stream, causing long term damage, but not getting into my muscles. Without insulin, sugar stays locked in your blood, where it can’t do anything but harm. Too little insulin in the blood stream and your brain could starve. Too much and you risk vascular damage. It’s a balancing act more difficult than the tallest of slacklines.
So, this is why I’m even more impressed with Sean Busby. Props to him. Way to advance the edge of diabetic normal, Sean. If bagging first descents in Greenland is “relatively normal”, then I guess it isn’t so bad.
Check out Sean’s website, Riding on Insulin, where he offers skiing and snowboard camps for diabetics. Go Sean!