Sarnia woman survives 50 years with diabetes

Cathy Witheridge with a medallion that recognizes her 50 years of living with diabetes. Glenn Ogilvie

Cathy Dobson

Sarnia’s Kathy Witheridge proudly opens a red velvet case holding her new medal, awarded to her for surviving with Type 1 diabetes for 50 years.

On one side the medal reads “Triumph for Man & Medicine.” On the other, “For 50 courageous years with diabetes.”

It’s unusual, to say the least.

“I’m so very proud of it because I worked so hard. It’s a full-time job to take care of yourself when you have diabetes and I have no diabetic damage,” says Witheridge. “The doctors are amazed.”

She knows of no one else with the same medal.

Witheridge, 72, was a young woman living in Halifax, West Yorkshire in England when she learned she had diabetes.

“I was in the hospital for three weeks and I was very, very sick,” she recalls.  “I was losing weight so rapidly.”

The doctors determined that at age 22 her pancreas had inexplicably shut down and her body was starved for insulin.

“I had to learn to give myself injections,” she said. “I was just terrified. I had to use a glass syringe back in those days with a long needle, and I had to boil it after each use to sterilize it.

“Those needles were so big, they hurt. Now I just dial up my insulin pen and this very small needle doesn’t hurt at all.”

Some things like the needles and glucose metres have improved immeasurably since Witheridge was diagnosed in 1964.

At that time, diabetics had to use insulin refined from cows and pigs. Today’s synthetic insulin is much closer to the human product.

But many other things remain the same, like sticking to a diabetic diet and exercising.

From the beginning, Witheridge says she was a good patient committed to healthy eating and abstaining from alcohol.

“At first, I allowed myself a little wine but I’d be sick for three weeks afterward. I just couldn’t handle it,” she said.

Doctors told her she should never get pregnant but she was just married and decided to have a child despite the disease.

It was a difficult pregnancy but she gave birth to a healthy son and is now a grandmother and great grandmother with her husband Paul.

“The doctors in 1964 told me I wouldn’t live more than 40 years with diabetes,” Witheridge said. “I was so young, that sounded like a million years away.”  But as time marched on, she thought more about the doctors’ prognoses and made sure she remained disciplined.

“I look after myself,” she said. “If there’s one piece of advice I have for other diabetics it’s to go by the rules. Be aware.”

She’s had rough days and difficult periods trying to level out her blood glucose, but Witheridge said she’s had excellent support from the local diabetic clinic.

“I am having the best few weeks right now,” she said.

November 30 marks the 50th anniversary of her diagnosis. The medal arrived in the mail from Boston’s Joslin Diabetes Clinic, which has issued only 2,905 50-year medals to recipients around the world since 1970.

The medal program was started by Dr. Elliott P. Joslin who believed that proper self-management was the key to minimizing complications.

He wanted the medal to serve as an incentive.

“I have had to be disciplined,” Witheridge said, carefully putting her medal back in its case. “The only thing I’m supposed to do, that I don’t do enough, is exercise.”